The media frenzy which will surround the upcoming World Cup will undoubtedly make the country nostalgic for the good times in Irish soccer, when we had a team who could compete with the big powers in the game, on the biggest international stage. Not since 2002 have we experienced the excitement of a World Cup build up, the naming of the squad, praying that injuries are avoided in the run in and jetting off to lands afar in perennial hope and expectation.
The abject performance on Sunday night against Turkey in the Aviva highlighted just how long it has been since Korea and Japan. Granted it was an end of season friendly when players are supposedly mentally and physically fatigued, but many of that starting eleven will still harbour ambitions of being included in Martin O’Neill’s first competitive side in September.
Here, we compare the probable team to face Georgia with the one that performed heroically against the world’s finest twelve years ago and choose a best eleven.
The retirement of Shay Given was something every Irish fan knew was coming, but refused to admit until the day he officially hung up the boots. The Donegal man saved his country from defeat and indeed embarrassment on numerous occasions and was one of the top number ones in the Premier League for the best part of a decade. In 2002, Given was just short of maturing into a top class keeper.
Since he departed the scene, David Forde appears to have grasped the jersey. A fine goalkeeper in his own right, Forde has not been found wanting in his short international career. However, it will be a long time before we possess a goalkeeper of Shay Given’s quality again.
Selection: Shay Given
Ireland conceded just three goals in four games in South Korea and Japan. The centre back pairing of Breen and Staunton provided experience and guile in forming a solid unit. Staunton captained the side in Roy Keane’s absence and would retire after the tournament.
His replacement in the number five shirt would be Richard Dunne. Alongside John O’Shea, Dunne delivered heroic performances in the green jersey, none more inspirational than his tour de force in Moscow on the road to qualification for Euro 2012.
Despite promotion back to the Premier League with QPR, Dunne will still have a fight on his hands to retain his jersey in September, with Ciaran Clark finally starting to deliver on the promise he has shown over the past few years. However, if fit, Dunne is still invaluable to the Irish team.
Selection: Steve Staunton and Richard Dunne
In Seamus Coleman, the current Irish side have a player who has the potential to be one of the best in the world. Tough in the tackle, alert and decisive in attack, Coleman is in line for a big money transfer to one of the Premier League’s top sides. The fact that he will probably go down as the best Irish right back of all time is no slight on Steve Finnan, a Champions League winner, who rarely had a bad game for his country.
On the other side, Ian Harte was the set piece specialist of the side (despite his penalty miss against Spain). He was an integral part of the Leeds United side that reached the Champions League semi-final in 2001, a level most of the current Irish side can only dream of aspiring to.
Marc Wilson is in pole position to be handed the number 3 shirt in September. He has been less than spectacular in his short international career so far and the fact that he lined up in midfield last Sunday night possibly suggests O’Neill is unsure of his best position.
Selection: Seamus Coleman and Ian Harte
Despite being robbed of the indomitable presence of Roy Keane, the Irish midfield in 2002 still contained Premier League quality players who were regulars for their clubs. Matt Holland and Mark Kinsella formed an ideal box-to-box pairing. Both players could defend and could also chip in with the odd goal, as Holland showed with his wonderful equalizer against Cameroon in the opening group game.
The likely pairing in September is James McCarthy and Wes Hoolahan. McCarthy was once talked of as a future superstar, but so far has played a peripheral role in too many big games to be classed as such. However, he is coming off the back of a fine season with Everton and is beginning to show signs of his potential.
Hoolahan was a late comer to the international scene. While he lacks size and may well be sacrificed for the more defensive minded Glenn Whelan, he possesses a wonderful football brain and can act as a mercurial number 10.
Selection: Matt Holland and James McCarthy
Ireland’s current wingers are something of an enigma. For years, Aiden McGeady has shown glimpses of genuine class and the rare ability to take on and beat a man.
However, his final ball has constantly and rightly been singled out for criticism and recently his displays in the green shirt have been met with derision by the fans.
James McClean is somewhat similar. Strong, with a quick burst of pace, his decision to declare for the Republic was widely applauded. Slightly more consistent than McGeady, with age on his side, he should form an important part of the O’Neill-Keane built side.
Their predecessors in 2002 were Jason McAteer and Zinedine Kilbane. Both men always gave 100% commitment to the Irish cause and produced fantastic performances and also some crucial goals during their international careers. Their commitment endeared them to the fans and they rarely let their country down.
Selection: Jason McAteer and Zinedine Kilbane
The strongest link between the 2002 side and the current crop is Robbie Keane. Brilliant in Korea and Japan, Keane was one of only two men to get past Germany keeper Oliver Kahn throughout the tournament. The other was Ronaldo.
Alongside him was Damien Duff, an attacking winger-come-forward who was entering his prime and keeping the legendary Niall Quinn out of the team. Back then Duff struck fear into even the best defenders in the world. He played with exuberance and an abundance of confidence and twelve months later would make a big money move to Chelsea. However as his career went on, Duff never quite showed the same ability to beat a man as he did around 2002.
Today, Shane Long acts as the foil for Keane. Excellent in the air, Long suits an ageing Keane perfectly. However, that partnership in 2002 was something special and you get the feeling it will be a while yet before Ireland takes to the field with two strikers of the calibre of Keane and Duff.
Selection: Robbie Keane (2002) and Damien Duff
Pundit Arena Ireland Select XI
GK: Shay Given
DF: Ian Harte, Steve Staunton, Richard Dunne, Steve Finnan
MF: Zinedine Kilbane, Matt Holland, James McCarthy, Jason McAteer
ST: Robbie Keane (2002), Damien Duff
So here we have it,an Irish team made up of the heroes of 2002 and the, er, current squad. Do you agree with our selections? Let us know in the comment box.
Brian Ryle, Pundit Arena.