Shay Given makes a save for Ireland against Iran in the World Cup play-offs in 2001.
With the Republic of Ireland’s FIFA World Cup play-off games against Denmark now upon us, we’re taking a look back at a memorable time for the Boys in Green at this stage of qualifying for football’s biggest competition. The games were against Iran back in November 2001,when Donegal’s own Shay Given produced a couple of outstanding displays.
Ireland’s journey to the 2002 FIFA World Cup started well. Mick McCarthy’s side were faced with the daunting task of meeting the two sides favoured for the top spots in the group, Portugal and the Netherlands, both away from home in their first two games.
Ireland impressed with two respectable draws against the teams with such greats as FIFA 100 member Clarence Seedorf and FIFA Ballon d’Or winner Luis Figo.
Ireland would go on to do well in the group and progressed to the play-offs unbeaten as the best second place team in Europe. They were subsequently given, on paper, the easiest route to the World Cup by being drawn against Iran. That said, they had agonisingly missed out on automatic qualification to Portugal on goal difference. Emphatic victories against all their other opponents in qualifying established the Republic of Ireland as the firm favourite against their play-off opponents.
If history was anything to go by Ireland were in for a tough night as the last three qualification campaigns had all ended in play-off failure. Despite Ireland being considered favourites by most people this didn’t stop Iran coach Miroslav Blazevic from declaring: “If we fail now I will hang myself from the crossbar on the pitch”, tongue firmly in cheek of course.
The first leg took place at Lansdowne Road in front of home crowd of 36,538. Despite Ireland making life difficult for themselves early on, they found their groove through a route one style of play against an organised Iran side. Ian Harte and Robbie Keane got the goals either side of half-time for an eventual 2-0 win. But that could have all changed had it not been for stopper Shay Given who on two occasions ensured the Irish went into Tehran with a decent advantage with a superbly timed save with his feet and then a brilliantly saved low shot just moments later. However, it would be in Tehran at the Azadi Stadium in front of over 100,000 people that Given would really shine as Ireland’s hero.
On 15 November 2001, Ireland faced Iran in the second leg of the qualifier and they made it to half-time without being breached. It was an acceptable first half but the defence certainly wasn’t looking impenetrable.
Into the second half, and the game started to open up. It was from the 54th minute that Given really started to make his mark. The Lifford man would punch a cross that came into the box which only led to an opposing Iranian player volleying the ball down to Given’s right. The keeper made an outstanding save and then used world class awareness to scrape the ball away from an incoming opposition player who was ready to just tap the ball home.
Ten minutes later and the Irish ‘keeper was establishing himself as the clear ‘Man of the Match’ as a half volley on goal was magnificently saved with a dive to the right leaving the ball well away from goal. A stoppage time goal was not enough for Iran as Ireland progressed to the 2002 FIFA World Cup with 1-2 aggregate win.
With a defence prone to errors and failure to score in the second leg it’s difficult to see how Mick McCarthy’s team would have got through without their main man in goal.
Shay Given would of course go on to make Donegal and the rest of the country proud as Ireland made it all the way to the Round of 16 of the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Japan and South Korea, The Irish took Spain all the way to penalties which turned out to be the nation's last appearance at the World Cup Finals.
Martin O’Neill and the Ireland squad will try to replicate the scenes of 16 years ago against Denmark on Saturday in Copenhagen, with Christian Eriksen and co heading to the Aviva Stadium three days later.
Connor Dale, a student at Errigal College, Letterkenny, is on work experience with the Donegal Democrat.