Football: Tired Irish are all smiles

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STEVE STAUNTON'S thundering free-kick against Malta on Wednesday has left the Republic of Ireland manager, Mick McCarthy, with the perfect answer to the critics who were beginning to write obituaries as his tired team threw away a two-goal lead and looked on the brink of a humiliating defeat in Valletta.

Staunton's 25-yard strike, which earned the Republic a 3-2 win over Malta, left McCarthy a relieved man after an eventful eight days in which his team slogged through three vital qualifiers. No wonder he said: "For the next five weeks it will look as though I have a coat- hanger stuck in my mouth. My grin will be that wide."

Ireland have claimed six points from the matches against Yugoslavia and Malta, while a last-gasp goal from Davor Suker denied the Irish a point against Croatia last Saturday.

McCarthy will ignore the detractors of his unpredictable team because he knows that qualification for next summer's European Championship finals is a real possibility.

One more victory in Macedonia next month will secure at least a place in the play-offs - and it could earn a greater prize.

Automatic qualification as Group Eight winners would reward an Irish win if Yugoslavia drop points in their final qualifier away to Croatia on 10 October. That would be the ultimate proving ground for McCarthy, who will earn a two-year contract extension if he reaches his first major finals since taking over from Jack Charlton in February 1996.

Northern Ireland are pressing ahead on contract talks with their manager, Lawrie McMenemy, despite the 4-0 defeat by Germany in Dortmund on Wednesday. His side have accumulated just five points from the seven games in the qualifiers, but David Bowen, the general secretary of the Irish Football Association, said: "As we said in our statement on Monday, Lawrie has the unanimous backing of our international committee, and it remains that way.

"Lawrie will be coming over in the next week or two," Bowen added, "to discuss the details of the contract."