Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy is used to hearing doom and gloom stories and predictions that he will get the sack. In both the draws for EURO 2000™ and the 2002 FIFA World Cup, he was placed in a difficult qualifying group with two world-class teams. In each instance, the experts were expecting results that would only lead to a rapid dismissal.
On each occasion McCarthy and Ireland have upset those odds, by finishing the group right in the middle of that so-called 'big two', going on to the play-offs while Croatia and the Netherlands respectively looked up to the Irish from third place.
McCarthy took his team into the EURO 2000™ qualifying campaign with the hard task of taking on a Croatia side which had just finished third at the 1998 World Cup, and a Yugoslavian team which had, for 60 minutes at least, outplayed Germany in the World Cup finals.
Eleven seconds away
Yet Ireland finished that campaign in second place, behind Yugoslavia but ahead of the Croatians, and indeed were just eleven seconds away from winning the group, as a late goal conceded away to FYR Macedonia in the final group game prevented them from going to EURO 2000™ as automatic winners.
Superb home record
The Irish felt they deserved to win the group as they had home wins over the big two Croatia and Yugoslavia, as well as easy dismissals of the minnows, but it was that away draw against FYR Macedonia which was their downfall. It was a pity as Ireland had a superb home record: they began the group with a 2-0 win at home to Croatia, and also had Dublin wins over Malta (5-0), FYR Macedonia (1-0) and Yugoslavia (2-1). But the away form was not as good as the Irish lost away to Croatia and Yugoslavia, drew with FYR Macedonia and even struggled to beat Malta 3-2.
That forced them into a play-off with Turkey where they managed to keep a clean sheet away from home for the first time in the campaign, but a 1-1 draw in Dublin handed Turkey the away goal they needed to advance to EURO 2000™. Meanwhile on the friendly scene for that campaign, Ireland had wins over Paraguay and Sweden as well as a shock home defeat by Scotland.
It was more of the same when the draw for the 2002 World Cup put Ireland in with two sides who had excelled at the previous summer's finals tournament, as the Netherlands and Portugal had both starred in EURO 2000™. Yet at the end of the group it was Irish eyes that were smiling as they finished in second place, behind the steady Portuguese but ahead of the Dutch.
Point made to Europe
The previous qualifying campaign began in the best way possible (a 2-0 home win over the Netherlands) and the new task had an ever better start - or so it seemed - when Ireland raced into a 2-0 lead away to the Netherlands, thanks to goals from Robbie Keane and Jason McAteer. Concentration dropped enough to allow the Dutch to get a draw, but Ireland had not only won a point, they had made a big point to Europe as well and they followed that up with a 1-1 draw in Portugal.
The hard work done and the two toughest games out of the way, Ireland got on with the business of qualifying: a home win over Estonia (2-0), easy wins away to Cyprus (4-0) and Andorra (3-0), and a 3-1 home defeat of Andorra (despite the scare of Andorra scoring a rare goal). Roy Keane's goal rescued a point at home to Portugal, and with Estonia dismissed once again (2-0 in Tallinn) the stage was set for the crunch home game against the Dutch, won 1-0 thanks to another goal from unlikely hero Jason McAteer, and a 4-0 rout at home to Cyprus completed the group, sending Ireland into a play off with Iran.
Irish into ecstasy
Again, the hard work was done at home, as a 1-0 defeat in the second leg in Tehran meant nothing as the tie had already been secured by a 2-0 win in the home leg, sending Ireland into ecstasy and the team to the World Cup finals for the third time.
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