Ireland's 'Golden Generation' aim to heal the Paris pain


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The Independent Football

The Republic of Ireland have only the final, simplest step left. The long saga of their trying to reach their first major tournament since 2002 may culminate tonight in Tallinn. The first leg of their European Championship play-off with Estonia is away, a useful advantage. Should they win or draw against the team ranked 59th in the world, they would bring them back to Dublin on Tuesday for what ought to be a raucous confirmation.

It would transform the narrative of Giovanni Trapattoni's reign, from one spoilt by injustice to one which overcame it. Of course, the controversial night in Paris two years ago, when Thierry Henry's handball helped send France through at the Republic's expense, will always mark the Italian's era. It was certainly painful, but by reaching a second consecutive play-off Ireland have given themselves the chance to move beyond it.

As well as the climax of Trapattoni's reign, Irish progress to Poland and Ukraine next year would be a fitting reward to the players once dubbed the 'Golden Generation'. Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne both played in the Irish Under-18 team who were European champions in 1998. Keane went with Damien Duff to the 1999 Fifa World Youth Championship, and the three youngsters were all part of the full Irish squad at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea.

Nearly eight years on, with those three in their early 30s and goalkeeper Shay Given now 36, this might be their last chance to play in a major tournament. Given, unsurprisingly, is desperate to make it, particularly with the prospect of sealing qualification in Dublin. "If we could do it in Dublin on Tuesday night, it would be just probably the most special thing in my career to actually qualify in Dublin," he said. "If we could do that, then the country would be going a little bit crazy."

The prospect of a European Championship, Ireland's first since 1988, is an obviously attractive one, not merely because of the volume of Irish fans who would travel to Poland or Ukraine. "Poland and Ukraine aren't so far away, and I'm sure if we do qualify then there will be thousands and thousands of Irish fans over there," said Given. "Irish fans make tournaments with the atmosphere and colour that they bring to them."

All it relies upon is a good result tonight. Denis Irwin, who played in previous play-off disappointments, believes the fixtures favour Ireland. "The fact that we're going to Estonia first is a major plus," he said. "You're much more comfortable with the second leg at home. Even though our away form has been fantastic, you'd much rather be at home second."

Estonia know the importance of a strong start. "Win at home and draw away," said coach Tarmo Rüütli when asked what a good result would be. "We have tasted success already, so we know what it means", he added, and rightly so. Estonia finished second in their qualifying group which included Italy, Serbia and Slovenia.

Trapattoni's back nine will be predictably well-organised. His one decision is whether Jonathan Walters or Simon Cox plays in support of Keane in attack. Rüütli complimented Trapattoni as an "old fox". If the 72-year-old can fly home with something useful tonight, he can deliver a thrilling and overdue reward to Ireland on Tuesday.

Sky Sports 1, tonight, 7.45pm

Euro 2012: Team news

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