Football: McCarthy's early risers mostly intact

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS an early call for the Republic of Ireland's players yesterday, but none for Andy Townsend, their former captain. Townsend, who retired from international football last season, was prepared to return at short notice for tomorrow's important European Championship tie against Yugoslavia here if injuries severely depleted the squad at the weekend following the refusal of Fifa, world football's governing body, to implement their own rule that players should be released five days before a competitive international.

The Republic lost Ian Harte, the Leeds United full-back, but their manager, Mick McCarthy, insisted that the only alarm bells ringing in the camp were the ones that woke the players at their Dublin hotel for an 8am training session before departure for Belgrade.

Some Irish heroes of the past might not have returned from their night out by that hour. The present crop of eager beavers were all up and running post-haste at the Post House, except for Charlton's Mark Kinsella. Although unable to train, he said that a dead leg would not prevent him from turning out tomorrow, which killed any notion of calling Townsend.

On Saturday the two midfielders had been in direct opposition in the Charlton- Middlesbrough match , when 13 members of the Irish squad played for most of a game. It would have been more, but for Alex Ferguson's generous gesture in picking Roy Keane and Denis Irwin only as substitutes for Manchester United.

Tony Cascarino came unscathed through his French league match for Nancy only to be held up for five hours at Belgrade airport, when the authorities decided that visas issued for the original game were no longer valid.

"Our players are very competitive and the risk of picking up injuries was always there," McCarthy said. "It's compromised us in terms of preparation but now it's done with so we're just concentrating on the game. If we get anything out of it, it'll be a massive step towards qualifying. If you offered me a draw, I'd take it and go home. It's a big game."

It is one that the Irish approach in good heart, having followed victory in their opening match against Croatia with a 5-0 win over Malta, four days after the game in Belgrade was first scheduled.

That has put them on top of the table, with a game in hand on Croatia. Yugoslavia have yet to play and, according to Sasa Ilic, the Charlton goalkeeper expected to be among their substitutes, they are all the keener because of last month's postponement.

"The people in Belgrade are really up for this game and the atmosphere will be fantastic," he said. "The Irish team can expect something special. Ireland are a good side - what impresses me is their team spirit and togetherness. Yugoslavia probably have the better individuals and we must hope our players blend together."

Yugoslavia appear to have been cannier than the Irish amid all the shenanigans with Fifa, football's world body, last week, calling the vast majority of their squad home before the clubs could claim them.