Football: Kinsella's surprise after spot prize

Steve Tongue says the hero of Charlton is also the pride of Ireland
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The Independent Online
A FEW days before Charlton Athletic's epic play-off final at Wembley against Sunderland last May, their captain, Mark Kinsella, was to be found long after his team-mates had finished training, knocking penalty kicks into an empty net. "It's not going to come to that on Monday, is it?" he was asked.

Of course, as the England camp repeatedly told us after their World Cup elimination, there is no point at all in practising penalties, with or without a goalkeeper. So it must have been the luck of the Irish - or something - that enabled the skipper to make a successful contribution to the subsequent heart-stopping shoot-out in front of 78,000 people that earned his team a Premiership place conservatively estimated to be worth pounds 10m.

Other glittering prizes, their financial value less easily measured, were also on offer. Having starred since then in a series of games against opposition as tough as the domestic game can throw up, the quietly spoken Dubliner has also won a place at the heart of the Republic of Ireland's midfield alongside Roy Keane, whom he rivalled for the accolade of man of the match in a 2-0 victory over Croatia last month.

That notable success began their country's European Championship campaign on a high note, which they hope to continue in Belgrade on Saturday evening. England may have pulled out of meeting Yugoslavia in a friendly next month but the Irish, for whom international football has always been a matter of extending the hand of friendship, expect to play.

As if to emphasise the point, Kinsella could even be in direct opposition to Charlton's goalkeeper, Sasa Ilic, born in Australia of Serbian parents and now called into Yugoslavia's squad for the first time.

Ireland have known from the start that, with respect to Macedonia, the greatest threat in this Balkan melting-pot of a group comes from Croatia, third in the World Cup last summer, and Yugoslavia, unbeaten in France until being edged out by Holland.

The emphatic nature of their opening victory in Dublin has simultaneously taken a little of the pressure from this second match while raising again the sort of expectations that had been slowly ebbing away since the days when Jack Charlton and the green hordes were a regular fixture at major tournaments.

Kinsella is one of a number of players too young to have tasted that experience who Mick McCarthy has brought in to revitalise the squad. "As young lads we watched on television and enjoyed it all like every other supporter, and now we'd like to have some of it," he says. "Other players were there under Jack when it was on a high and they'd like to do it again. We were delighted with the start against Croatia and now we need to carry it on against Yugoslavia. We're at home to Malta then on the Wednesday after, so four or six points from those two games would be a great start for us."

A better one than many expected in fact, which also goes for Charlton's Premiership return. Kinsella - who cost an absurdly cheap pounds 150,000 from Colchester United two years ago - has found the flow of Premiership football similar to that of his three full internationals: "They slow it down and play it about more at the back, then burst out and have a 10-minute spell and you're on the rack. They're all big games, but it's good experience."

All the more so for someone who, at 25, describes himself as "a late starter". Don't tell Glenn, but the more he practises those penalties, the luckier he seems to get.