Party atmosphere fails to disrupt Irish build-up

McCarthy's men endure noisy night prior to Spanish test while veteran midfielder ponders retirement

Steve Tongue@stevetongue
Tuesday 24 December 2013 05:57

Having been closeted away south of Tokyo in an enclave rightly described as a cross between Canary Wharf and Milton Keynes, it is just possible that the Republic of Ireland may not fully have appreciated the fervour of this World Cup, even on their three match days to date.

Last night, billeted just a goal kick from Seoul's main square, where an estimated 150,000 Koreans turned out to scream and shout the co-hosts to victory over Portugal on three huge screens, the Irish were left in no doubt that they were at the heart of the action. The scenes, and the noise, made Trafalgar Square on New Year's Eve look pretty small, flat beer.

With enormous speakers broadcasting the match and then celebratory music until the early hours of Saturday morning, sleeping pills must have been required in Ireland's hotel; there could well be some bleary eyes on the 25-mile coach journey to training this morning at the Suwon stadium where tomorrow the Republic meet Spain in a second round tie, probably the country's biggest match since meeting Italy in the quarter-final in Rome 12 years ago.

Mick McCarthy, captain on that occasion and now manager, was his usual phlegmatic self when speaking earlier in the day about the probability of nocturnal disturbance, pointing out: "There's nothing I can do about it. It's what the World Cup's all about – great atmosphere, exciting atmosphere. Let's hope Dublin's like that on Sunday. Maybe we'll have a few pints and fall asleep, then we'll be OK."

Not exactly the sort of preparation that Jose Antonio Camacho would have in mind for the Spaniards, you feel, though there was something of the Brian Clough approach to European Cup finals about it. But McCarthy does not believe the opposition will be sleeping easily in their beds either. Continuing the theme of the previous day, he repeatedly emphasised the pressure on Spain, while simultaneously claiming that Ireland, even more than Belgium against Brazil, have the toughest draw of the round.

For inspiration, the manager and his squad can draw upon memories of 1990, wherever they were for the second-round match against Romania, won on the penalty heroics of Packie Bonner and David O'Leary, and then the Italy tie. Steve Staunton, tomorrow's captain, was on the pitch, Niall Quinn a substitute; virtually all the players recall being clustered around a television set somewhere from Donegal to north London and now appreciate that it could be their name in lights and Irish folklore by Sunday tea-time.

McCarthy has his own memories stored away, now available for motivating his men: "I remember standing in the tunnel seeing 11 very nervous Italians when they realised the pressure was on and they were playing in the Olympic Stadium against an Irish team they knew could play, even though four or five days earlier they'd been telling everyone who would listen that it would be easy." It was far from that, and only Toto Schillaci's late goal earned Italy a semi-final against Argentina.

That Italian side had not conceded a goal in five games, but scored only nine. Tomorrow's opponents are averaging three per game, while failing to keep a clean sheet to date. McCarthy thinks that will make for an open game with Spain throwing men forward in support of the Real Madrid pair Raul and Fernando Morientes, but he should not bank on it.

Listen to Camacho: "We can't afford to go rushing in against them, looking for goals with seven players in attack and then leaving them to hit us on the break. In the first phase you have a second chance if things don't go your way but here there is no margin for error. We have to play our own game and make sure we keep the ball."

If they do, Ireland will have to work hard even by their exceptional standards to get it back, given the array of talent available to the Spanish coach in midfield and attack. If Spain have a weakness – and McCarthy could not find one even among the shadow squad that beat South Africa this week – it can only be a lack of pace in the central defensive partnership of Fernando Hierro and Miguel Angel Nadal, with more than 150 caps but also 69 years between them.

Robbie Keane, brimful of confidence after two dramatic goals in successive games, and Damien Duff will test them for pace and athleticism as long as Keane is not hampered by a lingering groin strain.

"We've got where we are by being a very good competitive team," McCarthy insisted. And off he went to sleep the sleep of the just not worried.

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