Of all the Irish observers in the hostile environment of Tehran's Azadi Stadium on Thursday evening, few knew how much qualifying for next summer's World Cup finals meant to the players cavorting around in green jerseys better than the former Liverpool full-back Jim Beglin. A man given to greater self-pity might have told the Irish television audience for whom he was analysing the game: "There but for one tackle...'' Like anyone whose life has been profoundly changed by a single random incident, he will go to his grave wondering what might have been.
In the amiable Dubliner's case, that chance moment came in a Merseyside derby in January 1987, the League Cup quarter-final, when a tackle in a thousand left him with a broken leg. Having made his international debut in Eoin Hand's last match as manager, two years earlier, he had established himself under Jack Charlton as a composed defender, won 15 caps and been part of a promising start to the 1988 European Championship campaign against Belgium and Scotland.
He would never represent his country again, as they qualified for three major tournaments out of four from 1988 to 1994. "I missed the lot,'' he recalled on the long journey back from Iran, wistful rather than bitter. "After breaking my leg I went on to Leeds about 75 per cent fit and was hoping to get into the Italia '90 squad. But all I got was one B international in Cork, against England. Then my knee gave out and by 1991 I was finished at 27. I won some medals with Liverpool but I was desperate to sample the World Cup and it's something I'll always regret.''
Since that time he has become an astute and eloquent contributor to radio and television, a particularly interested follower of his former team-mate Mick McCarthy's attempts to emulate Saint Jack's achievements. Neither one-eyed nor green-eyed about the progress made, he believes McCarthy finally received just reward last week for passing the ultimate managerial test: bringing the very best out of the resources available to him.
"Jack had better players to call upon and a better squad,'' he said. "I don't think you could say Mick has as strong a squad. He's got everything he could out of them, including the team spirit and togetherness which may have compensated for a lack of quality in one or two areas.''
Even those few Irish newspaper critics surprisingly strong in their past denunciations of McCarthy and all his works have been forced to eat a slice of humble pie. Whatever the failings in the 1998 and Euro 2000 qualifiers – both ended cruelly in play-off defeats – Beglin believes the current campaign to have been exemplary: "With Holland and Portugal away in the first two games, everyone thought we'd be chasing things, and if we came out with a point we'd be doing well. So getting two draws gave us a good foundation. It could have backfired but it worked out a dream.
"We should have won in Holland and could easily have lost in Portugal, so it balanced out. Sometimes in the past it's been an Irish trait to do well in the bigger games and then let ourselves down, but there wasn't any sign of that against Estonia, Cyprus and Andorra. In the last World Cup we were held at home to Iceland and had a 0-0 against Lithuania, but this time everything's been solid and professional.''
Iran's last-minute goal on Thursday was, to some, an alarming reminder of how thin the margins have been, even in such a successful run. Did the Irish not have Shay Given's saves in each leg of the play-off to thank for their return to Asia next June? Beglin is more inclined to echo McCarthy's insistence that "luck didn't play a part in these two games. Hard work, application, good goalkeeping and taking our chances, that's what this win was about. The team have given everything over a magnificent qualifying programme.''
"Of course there were some thin margins,'' said Beglin. "You can look back to the Portugal game in Dublin, for instance, when for half an hour they ran us ragged. Even at home to Holland, Zenden and Kluivert missed great chances early on. There's always a fine line. We had to have a little bit of luck along the way but every manager needs it, a nice rub of the green or two.''
As for next year, he is not alone in believing that Ireland's prospects are intimately linked to the fitness of Roy Keane, their one player of the highest order and a colossus in every qualifying game for which he was available: "With Roy in the side we can be very good, as we showed in Holland for the first hour of the game. Next summer we'll be up against better teams and on the whole if we can reach the second round it would be a great success. We are capable of doing that but we have to have a little bit of luck and play together as well as we have in the group and the play-offs.
"Roy has been awesome, driven by a personal thing. In 1994 he did very well and had a lot of people talking about him and we probably underachieved given what we had. In my opinion, he sees this as a chance to announce himself again. It's where all the best players in the world want to perform. We recognise him as a superstar in this part of the world but he can be one on a world stage too. I am pleased for all the players and for Mick, but especially for him.''
That sounded as though it came from the heart of one who wished he could have been closer to it all than the commentary box.Reuse content