Football / World Cup '94: Charlton a bigger fish: Ian Ridley is not deceived by the Irish reputation for a simplistic approach: Sheridan suited to the playmaker's role as Republic of Ireland confirm their burgeoning reputation

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AT THE World Cup in Italy four years ago, Jack Charlton was asked before the Republic of Ireland's match against Egypt whether any of the opposition impressed him. 'Aye. The one with the beard,' he replied. There were six of them in the Egyptian side.

This is the Jack Charlton of image, engaging but unsophisticated, his team a reflection. Sometimes the manager could not remember the country against whom the Republic were playing, let alone who was playing for them. Sometimes he could not remember the names of his own players.

Football was something to which he turned his attention between angling trips; it was a game he could take or leave, which he was quite prepared to do if ever it undermined his well being. It was, too, a simple game and he took great pleasure in demonstrating as much to the world's tactical intelligentsia.

We should no longer be fooled. For he and his Republic are being re-appraised in the light of well-conceived 1-0 wins over Holland last month and Bolivia last week, with today's match against Germany in Hanover an opportunity to offer more evidence of their development. You begin to understand the words of Sepp Piontek, the Athos who crossed swords with Charlton's Porthos when coach to Denmark and Turkey: 'We know he goes fishing a lot, but what is he thinking about when he is fishing?'

The Irish have always been known for a solid 4-4-2 system; one big striker, one sniffer. Against Holland, injuries and club commitments forced Charlton into the formation of one striker and five midfield players with which the powers of next month's World Cup are shaping up and which Terry Venables has adopted. With Tommy Coyne scoring the goal in replacing Tony Cascarino and John Aldridge as the forward line, and John Sheridan finally fulfilling his vocation as a deep-lying playmaker, they revealed a new side, one that surprised observers.

Charlton repeated the pattern against Bolivia and Sheridan scored the winning goal to round off an authoritative display, all but confirming his place in any starting line-up. It is for Charlton either an interesting option or a dilemma for the Republic's opening match in the World Cup finals, against Italy at the Meadowlands in New Jersey on 18 June. How to be true to their nature and how far to account for conditions and opponents?

To accommodate Sheridan, it would seem that Charlton has to persevere with the bunch of five in midfield, it being unthinkable to drop either Andy Townsend, his captain, or Roy Keane, whose energy will be needed in the heat of the United States. Though his industry is suited to a wild rover's role, Coyne did not take either of the two good chances that came his way in Dublin when one sensed that Aldridge would have devoured at least one. Then there is the totem Cascarino, whose immediate unsettling of the Bolivian defence when he came on as a substitute led to the goal.

Charlton gives short shrift to talk of formations, even saying that they have always had a five- man midfield, with first Frank Stapleton then Aldridge dropping deeper when necessary. 'We adapted our game slightly against Holland,' he says. 'We have got a choice of playing two or three ways now and we can change it quickly. It's about getting people into the right position. It's not who's up there, but who gets there to join them.

'I have suggested things to the players that don't change the way we play but add something slightly different or take something away from it. Although they are simple things, they work. '

'We have got a good balance,' says Townsend. 'John likes to knock the ball around while Roy and I have the job of getting up and supporting the lone striker. It means being more patient but we are not the sort of team that likes to sit back. Jack always wants us to do the driving and pressing.'

It was noticeable, however, on Tuesday that for the first 20 minutes at Lansdowne Road the Irish allowed fellow qualifiers Bolivia - who were technically adept but had important attacking players missing and seemed to sustain nosebleeds in the opposition's half - to pass the ball at will inside their own half, something at odds with the Republic's gung-ho reputation.

Charlton, acknowledging that they knew nothing about South American opposition who were to be preparation for the match against Mexico in Orlando on 24 June, preferred his side to size up the task rather than mix it and see. It may be in New Jersey on 28 June against the tedious Norwegians, who drove Venables to remark after last Sunday's goalless draw with England at Wembley that they wouldn't sell many season tickets, that the Republic's instincts are truly honoured.

Charlton is aware that in the humidity of New Jersey and Florida, his team will need to judge more opportunely the moment to charge, the moment to retreat. In the European Championship of 1988, his embryonic team were drained after three matches, while at Italia '90, they wilted during the fifth, the quarter-final against Italy. After 10 days of acclimatisation in Orlando, the Republic should be equipped, physically, to endure at least as far. 'There are times in any game where you have to give the lads a little rest,' says Charlton.

Rather than it all being part of a learning process, the Republic's growing status and respect seem more to do with maturation, of Charlton's team and himself as an international manager. The ageing of the team's nucleus certainly does not concern a man whose own international career spanned his 30th to 34th years.

'We can field a team with an average age of 25 or one over 30,' he says. 'Everyone makes such a fuss about it but I played until I was 38 at Leeds and Don Revie offered me another two-year contract. Bob Paisley once told me that other teams thought they could run past Liverpool's full-backs but they had so much knowledge that they wouldn't let them run. That's called experience.'

There are worries, however, in the flagging form of Ray Houghton and, more seriously, the health of Paul McGrath, physically and emotionally the touchstone of the squad. Charlton last week insisted that the centre-back, who has had a shoulder injury for three months, should join in training sessions, from which he is usually excused due to unsound knees.

Amid all the concerns - or alternatives - beaming images of Jack Charlton abounded last week. He was ringside in Belfast at the Chris Eubank fight, puffing on a cigar. On match day, he went into Mountjoy prison in Dublin to speak to inmates and had his wallet lifted (later found). He talked expansively at a dinner given by team sponsors in London on Wednesday and returned to Dublin to be given the freedom of the city the following night.

This was the unaffected bloke that the Irish have taken to their bosom. But, during it all, we can only guess what this more complete angler is thinking about.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (International friendly v Germany, Hanover, today): A Kelly (Sheffield Utd); Irwin (Manchester Utd), McGrath (Aston Villa), Babb (Coventry), Phelan (Manchester City), McAteer (Bolton), Townsend (Aston Villa), Sheridan (Sheffield Wednesday), Keane (Manchester Utd), Staunton (Aston Villa), Cascarino (Chelsea).

GERMANY: Illgner (Cologne); Matthaus (Bayern Munich), Buchwald (VfB Stuttgart), Kohler (Juventus), Struntz (VfB Stuttgart), Sammer (Borussia Dortmund), Basler (Werder Bremen), Wagner (Kaiserslautern), Moller (Juventus), Riedle (Dortmund), Klinsmann (Monaco).

(Photograph omitted)