“Finnan facing Cocu…. a little cross in there.. and it’s come through here.. MCATEER!”
On the first of September 2001, Mick McCarthy’s Irish side stepped onto the Landsdowne Road pitch to face European giants Holland knowing that they needed the most unlikely of victories to keep the spark of their World Cup dream alive.
The Boys in Green had let a two-goal led slip in the second half of the first clash between the pair in Amsterdam the year previous, and with Portugal poised to win the group the game had the air of importance that the Irish sides so often thrive in.
Holland led by legendary Louis Van Gaal, had the likes of Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Marc Overmars and Patrick Kluivert at their disposal, and had reached the semi-finals of Euro 2000 just a year prior. A victory was expected and required, but a loss would see them effectively eliminated
For Ireland, it was a case of win and secure at the very least a play-off spot.
The Game Itself
49,000 fans packed into Landsdowne Road for what will go down in history as one of the most highly anticipated games in Irish footballing folklore.
If any doubts were lingering over Ireland’s ability to deal with an occasion like this, against a team like this, it took all of 35 seconds for Roy Keane’s boot to soon dispel any worry.
The Manchester United and Ireland captain set the tone for the next 89:25 as he barrelled into Dutch star Marc Overmars, physically and verbally reminding him that Holland were indeed in a game.
Mark Van Bommel soon returned the favour on Kevin Kilbane, inciting a stand-off between both sets of players, as the potential for a classic continued to grow.
Throughout the first half, the attacking triumvirate of Overmars, Van Nistelrooy and Kluivert caused a shaky Irish defence expected problems, but Ireland coped and were not afraid to attack themselves, with Robbie Keane making a constant nuisance of himself in the Dutch backline.
Van Gaal’s men continued to threaten and Ireland continued to contain them, until a major flashpoint in the 58th minute of the game.
Right-back Gary Kelly was dismissed for a wild lunge from behind on Phillip Cocu and as the Leeds fullback left the Landsdowne Road pitch so too, it appeared, did the Irish aspirations of a historic victory.
Evidently, no one had explained the narrative to Jason McAteer, who less than 10 minutes later popped up at the Dutch back post completely unmarked to slot home a Steve Finnan cross with the most confident of finishes.
An expectedly nervy 20 minutes followed as the Dutch, who had brought on both Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Pierre van Hoojidonk, played the last quarter of the game with no less than four up top.
But this was to always be Ireland’s day, as the Boys in Green held out to secure at worst a play-off spot, knocking the European giants out of qualification contention in the process.
Following Ireland’s historic victory Mick McCarthy’s men thumped Estonia in their last group game to set-up a two-legged play-off tie with Asian side Iran.
Ian Harte and Robbie Keane scored at Landsdowne Road in the home leg as Ireland ran out 2-0 winners and despite a 0-1 defeat in Tehran, the Boys in Green reached the World Cup in Korea and Japan.
A turbulent tournament followed as talismanic captain Roy Keane famously departed the Irish training camp in Saipan before a ball was even kicked, but minus the United man Ireland still performed excellently.
They reached the last-16 of the competition where they were cruelly defeated on penalties by Spain, in a game which Ireland were very much the better side.
Unbeaten in qualifying and a penalty kick away from the last eight of the World Cup it was a tournament that will live long in the hearts and minds of Irish football fans. One that would not have been possible had Jason McAteer not put the ball in the Dutch net on this day 18 years ago.