Football: McCarthy bemoans bad luck of the Irish

GREEN WAS the colour; and if the pallor of one or two Republic of Ireland players matched their shirts on a rough crossing over the Marmara Sea back to Istanbul after Wednesday's goal-less draw in Bursa, it will soon be replaced by the green eye of envy as they contemplate a summer watching Turkey, England, Slovenia and the rest competing in the European Championship finals.

Failure by an away goal after two drawn games may seem as rough as the boat trip was but ever since Davor Suker scored the only goal of the Group Eight match in Croatia during stoppage time pessimists have had a sinking feeling about Ireland's destiny.

Four days after that, Alan Kelly was required to make an excellent save to prevent Malta, of all people, achieving a 3-3 draw and, in the final group game, qualification was 12 seconds away when Macedonia equalised.

So it came down to a play-off, for which the prevailing mood was summed up by Dublin bookmakers offering Turkey as odds-on favourites to go through even before the first leg. Those odds hardened after the Turks responded positively to an early battering and conceding a goal to Robbie Keane, whose suspension for the second game further handicapped Ireland's prospects.

Even with Niall Quinn fit to return in Bursa, they never looked likely to score the goal that was a minimum requirement. But for an impressive performance by Charlton's Dean Kiely on his full debut in goal and help from the crossbar, the Irish would have been well beaten.

The unpleasant scenes after the final whistle, as Irish frustration clashed with Turkish triumphalism, will probably bring a fine for the Turks' lax security while the bruises by which Tony Cascarino will remember his last international will heal faster than Stephen Carr's ankle ligaments, which are likely to keep the Tottenham full-back out for some time.

Ireland's manager, Mick McCarthy, felt his team did not deserve to lose over 180 minutes and listed absenteeism from key games as a decisive factor over the course of the whole campaign. As a fair-minded man, however, he had undermined his own argument the previous day by pointing to examples of luck running Ireland's way earlier on. Over 10 games, these things tend to even themselves out.

For the third successive occasion in a play-off, and even though the margins were thin, the Republic were not quite good enough. It would be harsh to lay too much of the blame for that at the manager's door. Since inheriting an ageing squad from Jack Charlton in February 1996 he has brought on some promising younger players, maintained the loyalty and commitment of senior ones, and been one goal away from qualifying in each of his two major tournaments. Against that can be set a certain tactical conservatism evident in some of the critical away games - though hardly on Wednesday, when he picked two attacking flank players in Rory Delap and Kevin Kilbane, each of whom was unable to deliver as much as they initially promised.

McCarthy's future is assured, thanks to the Football Association of Ireland's generous gesture in awarding him a new contract, which he has now signed, before the qualifying group was finished. So Joe Kinnear, Brian Kerr, and any other would-be successors will have to wait a while yet.

Kerr is the hugely successful coach to the various Irish youth teams who have achieved unprecedented success in European and world-wide tournaments over the past few years, with Robbie Keane and Damien Duff their first graduates. There are more where they came from, whose development, ironically, is now largely in the hands of English coaches at their Premiership and Nationwide League clubs.

A welcome note of levity was added to Wednesday's long journey into the night when the Aer Lingus captain announced that his name, bizarrely, was Mick McCarthy. His namesake remains at the controls, but can expect only one more opportunity to achieve a happy landing for Irish football.

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