Football / World Cup USA '94: Charlton remains reflective about the way ahead: Irish ponder life after the excitement has gone. Trevor Haylett reports from Orlando on the end of an American dream

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The Independent Online
THE remains of burst balloons, discarded bunting and wrapping paper that no longer wrapped were all over the floor of the hotel room Jack Charlton chose in which to look back on two weeks of intense World Cup football and ahead towards the next two months and further still into the next two years.

For someone else in Orlando the party was over and the remnants of what had been and gone lay all around for all to see. It was certainly over for the Republic of Ireland, their two-goal, second- round defeat by the Netherlands delivering a tired squad home to Dublin for what some will see as a wake but which primarily is a celebration of another job well done.

Might the party also be coming to an end for Charlton, the English manager of a tiny nation's sporting hopes who has achieved remarkable feats and has a unique place in the hearts of its people? Almost certainly it is not far away if not just yet. Disappointment like he experienced in the aftermath of defeat, in an event which has governed his thoughts for the past two years, is bound to prompt a little review and reflection.

There is no doubt that the 1996 European Championships will bring to a close his involvement with the team he has raised immeasurably in his eight years in charge but, tantalisingly, Charlton also left hanging in the air the possibility that he might not even get that far.

The great gathering of the finest football people the globe can muster every four years is a party not to be missed but for Charlton, World Cup finals' managership is no longer a novelty, it is a hard slog and a confinement this irascible character finds hard to accept. The officialdom gets him down, the conferences before a sea of notebooks and cameras, guaranteed to provoke his ire. When it is over and out of the way is when he takes stock.

'I'm in a position now where I've got two months without anything to do and I'm going to give it some thought, talk it over with a few people and decide where we go from here,' he said. 'Almost certainly I will take Ireland through the European Championships but right now I cannot categorically state that.'

Several factors will dominate Charlton's thinking and determine his course of action. For now he has the undying affection and support of the Irish people but the moment that changes is the moment he will clear off. He is sensitive to what the press in his adopted country are saying about him and while he remains the only choice for the Football Association of Ireland he knows circumstances and opinions can change.

'Look, I have never felt more secure and settled and I don't want to prompt any scare stories by casting doubt on my future. But how can I avoid sowing those seeds of doubt? I could say now I will definitely be there for the European Championships in 1996 but I don't want to. I want to say it in a couple of months' time. Maybe the people over there don't want me any more, I don't know. Everything is up in the air because we have lost and we are all disappointed and it will take two or three days to get our thinking clear again.'

Winning a place in the second- round stage of USA '94 was no small achievement in view of the calibre of the qualifying series and the challenge for places from the 'group of death'. The nature of Monday's defeat in the Citrus Bowl however left a sour taste that will stay throughout the journey home and beyond. Under Charlton Ireland have established a reputation for guarding their goal with the utmost care and attention and these were two turkeys given away.

Terry Phelan's lazy header allowed Marc Overmars to sprint away and set up Dennis Bergkamp for the Netherlands' first. Packie Bonner then got hands to an ambitious long-ranger from Wim Jonk but woefully allowed the ball to slip through his grasp. It was a tragic moment for the goalkeeping stalwart who was a hero four years ago and who appeared to have answered the suspicion going into the championships that at 34 he was past his best.

Now a distinguished career for the Irishman with more international appearances than any other looks to be over. Alan Kelly is bursting with ambition and impatience and is desperate to take over. Phil Babb, Gary Kelly and Jason McAteer are assured of their places in the new order of things.

A Dublin gala reception for the Irish World Cup squad has been called off after players and Jack Charlton rejected the idea.