A precocious Dutch teenager brought the Jack Charlton era to the brink of its conclusion last night. Patrick Kluivert, who was nine when Charlton became manager of the Republic of Ireland a decade ago, scored twice as the Netherlands clinched the last European Championship place on a passionate night at Anfield.
During the Charlton years Ireland have scaled previously unimagined heights, thrice reaching major tournament finals. Last night, he could not quite inspire his troops to climb the final hurdle in pursuit of a fourth.
As ever, they ran, chased and tackled, but it was not enough. Next summer, while the Dutch and 15 other nations contest the finals in England, they will have to watch from across the Irish Sea. The Netherlands may have qualified the hard way, but they will be formidable opponents, another team no one will want in Sunday's draw.
Leading their challenge will be Kluivert who, at 19, has already made a habit of scoring important goals. In May he scored the only goal as his club, Ajax, lifted the European Cup. Last night he scored after 29 and 88 minutes and, but for the crossbar, he could have had a hat-trick.
The Dutch, indeed, could have had four - Dennis Bergkamp also hit the woodwork - but that would have been a harsh reflection on an Irish team which struggled manfully to match their skilful counterparts.
Indeed, they will long reflect on a chance which came to Tony Cascarino on the hour. Jason McAteer, a 50th-minute substitute for the unfit Andy Townsend, crossed from the right as Cascarino stole in, unmarked at the far post. The cross seemed perfect but Cascarino, possibly distracted by a near-post flick from Winston Bogarde, just failed to get a touch.
It was particularly cruel on Cascarino who, like his team-mates, had given an unexpectedly polished display. The match had been billed as beauty against the beast but the contrast was never as stark as that. While Charlton had opted for a primarily defensive formation, with two full-backs on each flank, his team were more sophisticated than legend has it.
Indeed, there were aspects of their play which Terry Venables, that video addict, may well consider showing to his own players. The central defenders, Paul McGrath and Phil Babb, pushed into midfield more comfortably than anyone Venables has tried for England. In attack the long-derided Cascarino had the Continental touch. The French influence was clear as the Marseille forward showed defter control than he ever did in England and dropped into midfield a la Sheringham.
But the master of the deep-lying centre-forward role was wearing orange and white. Bergkamp played off Kluivert just as he does off Ian Wright at Arsenal, and the Irish found him as hard to pick up as Premiership defenders have done.
Having prompted Edgar Davids into bringing a good save from Alan Kelly, Bergkamp then hit the post after eight minutes from a pass by Kluivert. The Irish, however, were not to be overawed and Sheridan played an exquisite chip into Cascarino, the younger but greyer half of the 70-year-old striking partnership with John Aldridge. Cascarino laid the ball off, but Townsend volleyed over. Aldridge headed wide and Terry Phelan volleyed over as Ireland held their own.
But then Clarence Seedorf, cruising imperiously out of defence, found Bergkamp who slipped the ball to Kluivert. A first-time left-foot shot did the rest.
The Dutch, believing one goal to be enough, conceded midfield to the Irish after the break until, roused by Cascarino's miss, they went in search of the kill. Within minutes Kluivert had headed against the bar, Babb had blocked a goal-bound shot from Davids and Alan Kelly brilliantly denied Seedorf.
Ireland were by now ragged and, with two minutes to go, the Dutch finished them off. Kluivert drifted between the central defenders and, after being picked out by Ronald de Boer, he calmly chipped Kelly.
Forty minutes after the end Charlton came on to the pitch with his assistant, Maurice Setters. He did so in response to repeated chants for him from the Irish fans, thousands of whom had stayed behind. Clutching an Irish scarf, a Dutch flag and a small cigar he waved and wiped a tear from his eye while they chanted "Ole, Ole". It was not a farewell, more of a thank you, but the final goodbye may not be far away.
NETHERLANDS (4-3-3): Van Der Sar (Ajax); Reiziger (Ajax), Seedorf (Sampdoria), Blind (Ajax), Bogarde (Ajax); R De Boer (Ajax), Bergkamp (Arsenal), Davids (Ajax); Overmars (Ajax), Kluivert (Ajax), Helder (Arsenal). Substitutes: De Kock (Roda) for Bergkamp, 58; Winter (Lazio) for Helder, 79.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-4-2): A Kelly (Sheffield United); G Kelly (Leeds United), McGrath (Aston Villa), Babb (Liverpool), Irwin (Manchester United); Kenna (Blackburn Rovers), Sheridan (Sheffield Wednesday), Townsend (Aston Villa), Phelan (Chelsea); Cascarino (Marseille), Aldridge (Tranmere Rovers). Substitutes: McAteer (Liverpool) for Townsend, 50; Kernighan (Manchester City) for Aldridge, 72
Referee: V Zhuk (Belarus).
Last night's results, page 27
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