26 March ~ Macedonia was once a synonym for failure in the Republic of Ireland. Following a frustrating and bad-tempered loss during the France 98 qualifying campaign, the player voted worst trainer by his team-mates had to wear a bib bearing the phrase “I had a Macedonia”. The bib was retired following a 1-0 win in Dublin when the sides met again during the Euro 2000 qualifiers but the Macedonians were not so quick to let the insult go. Much was made of it in the build-up to the final game of the campaign with Ireland needing a win in Skopje to earn automatic qualification.
The atmosphere was decidedly hostile. Macedonia chose to warm up in the same half of the pitch as Ireland, the national anthem was jeered and the coaching staff was barracked throughout the match. Then three minutes into injury time, with Ireland leading 1-0, Macedonia won a corner. Goran Stavrevski headed home and wheeled away, joyously flicking Vs at the Irish dugout. Macedonia, failure.
Only Robbie Keane and Kevin Kilbane survive from that squad but the memory of the night remains strong. Kilbane’s run of 64 consecutive competitive games, which began with the unsuccessful play-offs against Turkey that followed, may come to an end this Saturday. Aston Villa’s Ciaran Clark could be preferred at left-back while injuries to Shay Given and John O’Shea mean that longstanding understudies Kieran Westwood and Kevin Foley will get their first competitive starts.
Other than that Giovanni Trapattoni is unlikely to make any changes to the cogs in his rigid 4-4-2. Despite his lack of playing time this season Keane will start alongside Kevin Doyle. Preston North End’s Sean St Ledger will partner Richard Dunne in the centre of defence. Wigan’s James McCarthy is not deemed ready for a start, so the stodgy but disciplined pairing of Darron Gibson and Glenn Whelan will make up the centre of midfield with Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff on the wings.
Macedonia’s team-sheet will be met with shrugged shoulders except for Internazionale’s Goran Pandev’s return from self-imposed exile. The
captain refused to take his place in the last round of games, after taking to heart the crowd reaction to their disappointing draw with Armenia. The other notable is Velice Sumulikoski, who spent two seasons in England with Ipswich and Preston North End. Dubbed “the Balkan Steven Gerrard” he is presumably adept at rifling 40-yard shots into the stands in lieu of making simple passes to his team-mates.
On paper it looks a comfortable win for the Republic but they are yet to impress in this campaign. They staggered to victory against Armenia, seemed to hit their stride against Andorra but were convincingly beaten by Russia in Dublin before a shaky but well-fought draw in Slovakia. Despite an unconvincing campaign and tight group Ireland are still well placed to qualify. As long as they don’t have another Macedonia. Aaron Rogan