When Irish allies are smiling

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THE jigsaw puzzle that was qualification for the European Championship finals all but came together on Wednesday when, after the last round of matches, only one of the 16 places was left undecided. But there was drama to come, nowhere more so than in Lisbon, Belfast and Rotterdam. Jack Charlton's Republic of Ireland went to Portugal knowing that a win would put them in the finals. Were they to draw or lose, their fate would rest in the hands of Northern Ireland, at home to rival Group Six contenders Austria. Meanwhile, Holland were at home to Norway needing nothing less than a win. Even that would probably only get them as far as the play-off. Three players at the centre of events - from the two Irish sides and Holland - look back on how they unfolded . . .

Portugal 3

Rep of Ireland 1

By Niall Quinn

THE first we heard from Belfast was at half-time when Northern Ireland were 2-0 up. It was agreed then that we would continue to keep it tight and hopefully still be 0-0 with quarter of an hour left; and if Austria hadn't scored two or three we could go and try to win the group. But unfortunately they scored 15 minutes into the second half.

From then on we weren't really sure what the scores were from Northern Ireland. But once we went 3-0 down everyone was worried. The only thing I knew from looking across at the bench was that there were a lot of goals because our physio seemed to run out of fingers trying to show what the score was, and that only confused the issue more. We got our sparkle back later when we heard how well Northern Ireland had done.

I'm relieved the play-off hasn't been switched to Wembley because the size of the Anfield pitch will suit us. With the crowd so close it'll be a unique international against Holland. There were a few negative vibes in Portugal over our defensive approach, but I think we'll see a return to Big Jack's put-'em-under-pressure policy.

Northern Ireland 5

Austria 3

By Iain Dowie

WE'D already had some good results, drawing with Germany and winning in Austria, but we were certainly very entertaining and attacking. When we were going forward it was almost 4-2-4, with Michael Hughes and Keith Gillespie on the wings, me in the middle and Phil Gray dropping off. It worked well and the Austrians found it difficult. Unfortunately we shipped a few goals, but playing the way we did that was understandable.

There was a lot made of us helping the Republic, but it wasn't really like that. There was no talk of them when we went off at half-time leading 2-0. We had to help ourselves first and foremost. We'd been disappointing at home. We'd let people down. We knew we had to get the fans on our side. Windsor Park can be a frightening place to come for teams if we're on a roll, and the atmosphere was electric, even with 9,000 or so. It was great to give people something to cheer.

It's easy to get carried away with one result, but I'd certainly like to think we can build on it. It augurs well for our World Cup campaign.

Holland 3

Norway 0

By Richard Witschge

IT WAS a very important game for us. We played very well in the first half. We could have been 4-0 up at half-time. When we did score it was a bit lucky because a defender kicked the ball and it bounced in off Clarence Seedorf. But it changed the match. We had more space after that. I think we have good players in the team. We are capable of beating anyone.

We were sitting in the dressing-room after the match when we heard we would have to play Ireland. We just said to ourselves, right we must go out and beat them. It would have been better to qualify automatically but we can still do it. We were stupid to lose two games early on in qualifying.

It will be like a home game for them. We have the better players, though the Irish may be stronger physically. We have a much younger team than when we played them in the World Cup, with a lot of players from Ajax. If we play to 100 per cent we should win.