Football: Youth puts a spring again in Irish step: Charlton and Smith meet with contrasting fortunes before their respective campaigns

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The Independent Online
NO LONGER do you hear the creaking limbs in the Republic of Ireland squad; instead a new breed of young talent has come along to re-ignite belief and revise expectations for their World Cup adventure.

A wonderful Wednesday result against the Netherlands has put paid to the pessimistic forecasts that accompanied their last and undistinguished qualifying displays. To conquer a nation favoured to survive until the business end of the United States tournament ensured that the confidence lost last autumn has been more than replenished.

As Andy Townsend, Ireland's inspirational captain, said: 'We knew what was being said around the time we booked our place in the finals and the doubts that were raised but since then we have become a stronger side.'

It is not unusual for teams having to cram in a busy schedule of preparatory fixtures - and through circumstance or design trying out the untried - to succumb to disappointing defeats.

Doubtless that is where the Dutch will file their experience in Tilburg. Yet as his ever-widening smile confirms, things this spring have worked in Jack Charlton's favour. First there was the satisfying draw against Russia when nearly all his first choice were absent.

Against the Netherlands, Charlton got closer to normality but still there was no Paul McGrath, Roy Keane, Denis Irwin nor any of his three leading strikers. Then to produce that level of ability and understanding against opponents England could not master was impressive.

Charlton's new recruits have been central to that improvement. Gary Kelly and Phil Babb have responded with intelligence and composure to their promotion and have in turn inspired the established hands around them.

Both have pace and while the remarkable Leeds teenager is unlikely to dislodge either Irwin or Terry Phelan from the full-back positions, Babb will prove an asset alongside McGrath. Jason McAteer does not look out of place either and after his winning goal Charlton will not hesitate to use Tommy Coyne again.

Erwin Koeman, the PSV Eindhoven midfielder, tore a groin muscle in training for the Irish game and is unlikely to play in the World Cup.

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