Finnan's defining moment

Irish hero is too tactful to tease his fallen Fulham team-mate
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The Independent Football

When Steve Finnan signed for Fulham less than three short years ago, home crowds were 10,000, a local derby meant Millwall, and Stoke City were the team to catch. His progress since then brings to mind the slogan of the old Virginia Slims tennis circuit: you've come a long way, baby.

The man who made his debut at home to Chesterfield began this season helping to frighten Old Trafford in front of 67,534; after today's settling of London scores at Charlton, the September fixture list includes Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.

All that following a week in which Finnan's assist and Jason McAteer's goal against Holland put the Republic of Ireland on their way to a highly winnable World Cup play-off against the third-ranked team in Asia, at the expense of the Dutch andclub-mate Edwin van der Sar.

Footballers' sense of "humour" being what it is, most dressing-rooms would have greeted the goalkeeper's return with mock Japanese accents and quips about a yen for Korea. Either because the French influence at Fulham is a civilising one, however, or (more likely) because Van der Sar is 6ft 6in, he seems to have escaped lightly.

"I'm disappointed for him," Finnan said at the club's latest training ground in leafy Motspur Park. "It would have been good for him and for Fulham to get there, so I haven't really said anything. I'm disappointed he couldn't be in a better position." Or in a better position to cut out the right-back's clever reversed chip across the penalty area, which McAteer clipped back beyond the Dutchman for the game's only goal.

That defining moment came soon after Ireland's Gary Kelly had received a red card, causing a flurry on the Irish bench, where Finnan had been sitting, and a flutter in his stomach: "I was just about to warm up, so it was a bit of a shock to be sent on straight away. I didn't even see the sending-off." As the unfortunate Robbie Keane was sacrificed, he slotted into Kelly's position for the remainder of a dramatic afternoon with all the confidence that Mick McCarthy, Kevin Keegan and Jean Tigana have always shown in him.

Not Trevor Francis, though. The Birmingham City manager, inheriting Finnan as part of the huge staff left by his predecessor, Barry Fry, sent him out to Notts County in the Second Division, first on loan, then permanently. It was Keegan who took him to Craven Cottage, soon after Fulham played County in 1998.

Keegan, a huge fan, believed he could operate in the influential central midfield area, and even urged him to wait for England to offer international representation. He would have conferred it himself after moving on to higher things, but in the meantime Finnan, equally capable of performing as a wing-back, full-back or wide midfielder, had thrilled his dad's Limerick family by throwing in his lot with the Irish.

McCarthy, as big a believer as Keegan, picked him for the Under-21s, then awarded a first cap against Greece 17 months ago and has added eight more since. "We're not getting carried away, because we're not there yet, but it's every player's dream to play in a World Cup," Finnan added. "It's looks like we're going to be second in the group so it'll mean the anguish of the play-offs but we're confident. To split Holland and Portugal shows just what a good squad we've got."

All this is said in an accent betraying the fact that he was barely a year old when he moved from Limerick to south London, where he took to supporting Arsenal, spurning today's opponents, Charlton. They returned the compliment, ignoring him as he made a name with the local non-League club Welling United, from where Fry boldly took him to Birmingham.

Last year Jean Tigana became his third Fulham manager in as many seasons, two of those campaigns finishing up with more than 100 points. "You can tell he's got great knowledge," Finnan says. "He might raise his voice if he has to, but he'd rather talk calmly. He's got a good will to win and that rubs off on the players. Jean hates to lose." Understandably: it is not as if he gets much practice.