AS LANSDOWNE Road shook to a rapturous ovation following the Republic of Ireland's victory, the public-address announcer urged: "Enjoy the party". It seemed unlikely that the 34,000 needed any encouragement.
"In 30 years of my career, I never saw a crowd like this," said the visiting manager, Miroslav Blazevic, who must have been as touched by the warm and respectful welcome initially accorded to his team as he was taken aback by the volume of noise that followed.
On Croatia's previous visit, for a 2-2 draw just before Euro 96, the occasion had been in a much lower key, for the Irish, having failed to qualify, were adjusting to life after Jack Charlton, whose replacement, Mick McCarthy, was struggling to win a match and recapture the affection he had once enjoyed as their centre-half and captain.
Now, 30 months into the job, "Yer Man" is his own man. "My cards were on the table today," McCarthy said. "This was my squad and my team. And with a full squad, we're a force to be reckoned with."
Croatia, narrowly beaten semi-finalists at the World Cup, but arriving now without half a dozen formidable players, certainly did not reckon on conceding two goals in the opening 15 minutes to Denis Irwin and Roy Keane. Just as they had got back into the game either side of half-time, the heavy tackling and suspect temperament in adversity that cost them 19 yellow cards in France had dramatic repercussions, with the dismissals of striker Mario Stanic and midfielder Krunoslav Jurcic in the space of two minutes.
"They were more dangerous with nine men than 11," McCarthy said. Oddly, that was the case in terms of real chances. Once substitute Lee Carsley - with his first touch - and the outstanding Mark Kinsella were denied a third goal by goalkeeper Drazen Ladic and the crossbar respectively, Phil Babb's uncertainty at the back might twice have been punished by Igor Pamic.
That aside, the only negative aspect to the afternoon for McCarthy was what he called "two stupid bookings for dissent - gross stupidity, which means we might lose players later." The miscreants were Kinsella and Robbie Keane, the teenaged Wolves striker, both caught up for one unwise moment in the tensions of their first competitive international.
Robbie Keane, quiet apart from one exceptional turn in the penalty area just before half-time, 19-year-old Damien Duff and Norwich's Keith O'Neill (who injured his shin early on) were all substituted, so on this occasion the Young Dubs ultimately had less influence than the Old Subs like Tony Cascarino, O'Neill's replacement, and Jeff Kenna, who came on at half- time for his Blackburn colleague Duff in a tactical adjustment.
Their day will come, however. Just as Jack Charlton freshened up his squad before the 1994 World Cup campaign by introducing Jason McAteer, Gary Kelly (currently injured) and Babb, so for the emergence of a gifted new young group of players is an important part of the optimism now running through Irish football again.
Remarkably, the Republic won the European Championship at both Under- 18 and Under-16 level this summer, having previously finished third at the World Cup for Under-18 players. Keane has already jumped into the senior side and others should follow.
Saturday's success led to deserved punishment for the Dublin bookmakers, whose pessimism had been reflected in unheard of odds against the Republic for a Lansdowne Road fixture of 5-2. The rewards doubtless fuelled much of the after-match partying.
Yugoslavia away next month is something different altogether. If offered a draw this time, the manager said yesterday: "I wouldn't bother getting on the plane. I don't know any team in Europe that would go there fancying they'd win."
As far as is known, no such arrangement is available, for the Yugoslavs, preparing for two wars without weapons against Croatia, will be even more fired up by this opening defeat for the enemy. It will also have alerted them, of course, to the Irish threat but, with three points in the bag, a defeat for the Greens next month would now be assessed as a setback rather than the trauma it might otherwise have been. A draw, on the other hand, would further fuel the self-belief in Dublin.
As President Clinton said in the capital on Friday, before returning to more pressing personal matters: "The Celtic tiger is roaring".
Goals: Irwin (pen 5) 1-0; Roy Keane (16) 2-0.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-4-2): Given (Newcastle Utd); Irwin (Manchester United), Cunningham (Wimbledon), Babb (Liverpool), Staunton (Liverpool); McAteer (Liverpool), Keane (Manchester Utd), Kinsella (Charlton Athletic), Duff (Blackburn Rovers); Keane (Wolverhampton Wanderers), O'Neill (Norwich City). Substitutes: Kenna (Blackburn Rovers) for Duff, 45; Carsley (Derby County) for Robbie Keane, 62; Cascarino (Nancy) for O'Neill, 9).
CROATIA (3-5-2): Ladic (Croatia Zagreb); Soldo (VfB Stuttgart), Stimac (Derby County), Simic (Croatia Zagreb); Tudor (Juventus), Jurcic (Croatia Zagreb), Boban (Milan), Asanovic (Panathinaikos), Jarni (Real Madrid); Maric (Croatia Zagreb), Stanic (Parma). Substitutes: Pamic (Osijek) for Maric, 45; Krpan (Osijek) for Tudor (62), Tokic (Croatia Zagreb) for Soldo, 77.
Referee: V. Pereira (Portugal).
Sendings off: Croatia: Stanic, Jurcic. Bookings: Republic of Ireland: Kinsella, Robbie Keane. Croatia: Tudor, Stanic, Pamic.
Man of the match: Kinsella.