Gary Breen has been this way before. Last summer he was an unattached player performing national service on the World Cup front in Japan and Korea.
Twelve months on, the gifted central defender is in a state of limbo again, without a club as he prepares to rally to the Irish cause on the road to Portugal in the European Championship qualifiers. The whole of Ireland can only hope he will play with as much distinction at Lansdowne Road against Albania on Saturday and Georgia the following Wednesday as he did on the World Cup stage in the Far East.
Breen was one of the Irish stars of last summer. He shone with such brightness that Barcelona showed an interest; Roma, too. David Moyes wanted to take him to Everton to help bring the glory days back to Goodison. He chose to seek European football with West Ham instead.
"It doesn't take a genius to work out that it hasn't gone as I had expected it to," the 29-year-old reflected on Friday evening. "I looked at the team at West Ham and thought: 'That's a good team'. They'd finished seventh the season before. With a few more additions, I thought they could possibly be challenging for Europe. I made my decision and, unfortunately, it didn't work out.
"Yeah, I talked to a few other clubs last summer, but that's in the past. It's all well and good saying: 'I could have done this. I could have done that'. But these things happen in football. I want to look forward now. I made the decision three or four months ago that I wouldn't be staying at West Ham. I just want to be positive now."
It has been one major plus that Breen has maintained his international form, despite falling out of favour at Upton Park in the wake of the 6-0 thrashing at Old Trafford in the fourth round of the FA Cup in January.
The Breen machine was functioning smoothly at the heart of the Irish defence in the 2-0 win in Scotland in February, in the 2-1 victory in Georgia in March, and in the 0-0 draw in Albania and the 1-0 win at home to Norway in April. The wheels need to keep turning smoothly, though, if Ireland are to continue to claw their way back into contention for a place in Euro 2004.
After starting their Group 10 qualifying campaign with defeats against Russia and Switzerland, Breen and the Irish team have moved to within two points of the Russians and within four of the Swiss.
If they were to take maximum points against Albania and Georgia in Dublin, they would be left with 10 points going into their final two fixtures: against Russia at Lansdowne Road in September and against Switzerland in Berne in October. They would be in with a fighting chance of at least a play-off place.
"We have got a chance now to rectify the mistakes we made earlier on," Breen said, alluding to the autumn defeats that prompted Mick McCarthy's departure and Brian Kerr's promotion to the manager's role.
"Maybe we took our eye off the ball in our opening two games. Maybe we had forgotten why we had done so well in the qualifying campaign for the World Cup and in the World Cup finals - by working hard and closing people down. We left ourselves with a mountain to climb, but we got good results in Georgia and Albania, and Georgia's win in Russia has really opened things up now.
"We have got four games to go and we feel we can win all four. I think we'll have to, if we want to qualify automatically. We are looking for nine points in the three home games, certainly, and then we will have Switzerland away in the last game.
"If we can make that a winner-takes-all game, then we will be delighted. We fancy ourselves against anybody on the day.
"I think it's important that we qualify for the European Championships now, because I think we can go a bit better than we did at the World Cup. Mick McCarthy obviously felt the time had come for him to move on to new pastures, because of the bad press he was getting in Ireland, which wasn't justified in my opinion. But it was good that Brian Kerr could come in and keep the momentum going. Mick took over an ageing team, and Brian worked closely with him at youth level in getting the young players to come through the ranks.
"The result is that we've now got a pool of players together that is a very strong squad. The youth team are men now, all knocking on the door, and Brian knows what they're capable of doing. With those of us who've been around for a while, we've got a nice blend. That's all credit to Mick and to Brian. They've done such an excellent job."
It could be that Breen is working with both McCarthy and Kerr next season. His former international manager is certainly keen to take him to Sunderland.
"I've got a lot of time for Mick McCarthy," Breen said. "I enjoyed working with him. But at this stage I am concentrating solely on the two Ireland games coming up.
"I have spoken to a few clubs already, but I don't want to rush into making a decision. It's important that I make the right decision.
"I thought I had done that the last time. But it became very obvious that I hadn't."
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