Football: Irish drawn together again

ONCE AGAIN, the two Irelands will meet on the football field. Just two months after the Republic of Ireland secured their place at this year's World Cup finals with a 1-1 draw in the hostile atmosphere of Belfast's Windsor Park, Northern Ireland and the Republic were drawn in the same qualifying group for the 1996 European Championship.

Yesterday's draw, in Manchester, placed Jack Charlton's Republic in Group Six as the top seeds, along with Portugal, Northern Ireland (from the third lot of seeds), Austria, Latvia and Liechtenstein.

Billy Bingham, the outgoing manager of Northern Ireland, said: 'I am disappointed Uefa did not keep the two countries apart.' However, Charlton is not worried about being paired with his team's neighbours.

'It is going to be every bit as competitive again, but there are no problems with us being drawn together,' he said.

Like Northern Ireland, Scotland were among the third group of seeds. They were pitted against Russia, Greece, Finland, the Faroe Islands and San Marino in Group Eight. Wales, promoted last week to the second lot of seeds, have a tougher task in Group Seven against Germany, Bulgaria, Albania and two former Soviet republics: Georgia and Moldova.

The Welsh (also without a manager at present) beat the Germans in Cardiff three years ago in the qualifying tournament for the last Championship. 'Our group has given us trips to some places we don't even know, but we have a good opportunity,' Alun Evans, the chief executive of the Football Association of Wales, said.

'Germany will be anxious about playing in Cardiff and I would say our real danger is Bulgaria. If we can take a draw in their place, we could finish in second place.'

Craig Brown, the Scotland coach, was satisfied with his team's fate. 'It looks as though we have a decent chance of qualifying. With the finals being played in England, it would be especially hard to sit and watch if we fail. The Russians will be tough, but we beat the CIS easily enough in the finals of the last championships in Sweden and we won't be running scared this time. Greece also will be difficult opponents - they must be good or they wouldn't be in the World Cup finals.'

England, as the hosts, are spared the qualifying campaign - a privilege not accorded to the holders, Denmark. The Danes find themselves in arguably the toughest section, Group Two, where their rivals include Spain and Belgium.

However, the composition of Group Four attracted the most attention during the draw. It includes three former Soviet republics: Ukraine, Lithuania and Estonia, plus Croatia and Slovenia (once part of Yugoslavia). They could have been joined by Russia - but instead the Italians, to their delight, will face five emerging nations without a European Championship victory between them.

EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP FINALS: Venues: Wembley (final - 30 June 1996, semi- final, quarter-final and group matches); Old Trafford (sf, qf, group matches); Anfield, Villa Park (qf, group matches); Elland Road; Hillsborough; St James' Park, Newcastle; City Ground, Nottingham (group matches).

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