As the Republic of Ireland players left the Lansdowne Road pitch to an appreciative ovation on Saturday evening, the public address system echoed to "We're On The One Road", with its appropriate refrain "On the road to God knows where". The Dublin crowd could have added their own up-dated verse: Saudi Arabia or Iran? UAE, Uzbekistan?
Anticipated victories by predictable margins for the Republic against Cyprus and Portugal (by 5-0) over Estonia had produced the expected outcome in Group Two, leaving Mick McCarthy's dogged foot soldiers unbeaten with an impressive 24 points but an inferior goal difference to the Portuguese, who comfortably outscored them against the group minnows. That means a play-off against Asian opponents who will not be known until 31 October at the earliest, only 10 days before they are due to visit Dublin for the first leg.
The Football Association of Ireland will seek talks this week with Fifa, football's world governing body, about how the schedule might be affected by political events. But that is in the hands of George Bush rather than Sepp Blatter. As the FAI's chief executive, Brendan Menton, said: "We're going to be in a period of uncertainty for some weeks. But as far as we're concerned, there's absolutely no problem about the match in Dublin on 10 November.''
The FAI will try to insist on a two-leg tie, whether or not the away match has to be played at a neutral venue. That would minimise the chances of the bad luck of the Irish in play-offs for the three previous major championships rearing its head again in a single game.
McCarthy, who was in charge for the two narrow failures against Belgium (3-2 on aggregate) and Turkey (on away goals) believes that with some justification that he now has a stronger squad than the one edged out of World Cup '98 and Euro 2000. "We're further along the line in the development of the team,'' he said. "The players have had the experience of the two play-offs and you learn from that. Your resolve gets stronger and that should help.''
There is undoubtedly greater depth available to him, as was shown on Saturday, when he was able to leave out Kenny Cunningham, Mark Kinsella, Jason McAteer and Robbie Keane, even though others like Stephen Carr, Gary Kelly, Gary Doherty, Rory Delap, Richard Dunne and Damien Duff were all unavailable.
The one name that matters most is, of course, that of Manchester United's Roy Keane, the dominant figure yet again against Cyprus, even though the sponsors chose Niall Quinn, on his 35th birthday, as their man of the match, in recognition of his becoming the Republic's all-time highest scorer with 21 goals, 16 long months after equalling Frank Stapleton's record. The fact that those goals have taken 86 matches illustrates the one Irish deficiency: the lack of a natural scorer in the ranks, a role that Robbie Keane has so far proved unable to fulfil.
There was, therefore, never any possibility of achieving the 13-0 victory on Saturday, which became the eventual requirement to climb above Portugal. A serious challenge to Ireland's record World Cup score (6-0 against Cyprus 21 years ago) did seem on the cards when Ian Harte, with a trademark free-kick, and Quinn, to the delight of his native Dublin, beat Nicos Panayiotou within 11 minutes of the start.
But the cards, it transpired, held nothing more than a brace in the space of four minutes from David Connolly and Roy Keane to enliven the second half. Not that McCarthy was prepared to acknowledge any sense of anticlimax as he summed up a campaign in which the Irish could not realistically have wished for more without facing accusations of greed. "It's a fantastic achievement from a terrific bunch of players'', he said. "Twenty-four points is fabulous. I've no regrets. We've done a large part of the job but we're not there yet. We won't be playing any mugs in the play-off – they'll be a good, well-organised football team and it won't be easy.''
McCarthy will wait until his team's destiny is known before deciding whether to negotiate a new contract or – if everything goes wrong next month – to push for the Premiership manager's job he has come to covet: "I love doing what I do and these are fabulous games to be involved in, but I went from the First Division [with Millwall] to being an international manager and bypassed a top-level plum job. I'd like to think there was one there for me at some stage. But not yet. I want to qualify for the World Cup.''
Quinn believes that the Republic have already outshone the successful qualifying campaigns of 1988, 1990 and 1994. "It's a team that's going places,'' he said. Which places, remains uncertain.
Goals: Harte (3) 1-0; Quinn (11) 2-0; Connolly (63) 3-0; Keane (67) 4-0.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-4-2): Given (Newcastle); Finnan (Fulham), Breen (Coventry), Staunton (Aston Villa), Harte (Leeds); Kennedy (Wolves), Holland (Ipswich), Keane (Manchester United), Kilbane (Sunderland); Quinn (Sunderland), Connolly (Wimbledon). Substitutes: Carsley (Coventry) for Kennedy, 63; Morrison (Crystal Palace) for Quinn, 68; McPhail (Leeds) for Kilbane, 83.
CYPRUS (3-5-2): Panayiotou (Anorthosis); Konnafis (Omonia), Melanarkitis (Apollon), Daskalakis (Apoel); Theodotou (Omonia), Satsias (Apoel), Nicolau (Omonia), Christodoulou (Aris), Kotsonis (Anorthosis); Okkas, Yiasoumi (both PAOK). Substitutes: Luca (Anorthosis) for Konnafis, 70; Themistocleous (Olympiakos) for Okkas, 83; Kontolefteros (Omonia) for Yiasoumi, 89.
Referee: J Roca (Spain). Bookings: Cyprus: Melanarkitis, Okkas.
Man of the match: Keane.