Ireland 1 Netherlands 0
World Cup qualifier, Lansdowne Road, Dublin, 1 September 2001
Until last night, Irish dreams seemed hopelessly restricted by the team's history since Jason McAteer did that number on the Dutch in another lifetime. It was as if the whole country had become entombed in resignation.
- Vincent Hogan, reporting on Ireland’s 1-0 victory against Germany, 8 October 2015, Irish Independent
We may impress the public, but we certainly do not impress the Irish players. They are all boys who play in the English Premier League.
- Louis van Gaal
We, Ireland, are a country occasionally beset by our limitations on the global sporting stage. Although Ireland has produced boxers, golfers, rugby players, jockeys, cyclists and athletes who stand among the world’s very best, when it comes to football we continually struggle with what we desire and what we realistically hope to achieve. Largely uninhibited by the professionalism and resultant successes of their national sporting peers, the Football Association of Ireland’s approach tends to that Irish penchant for fulfilling the role of the underdog; satisfied with occasional, fleeting, but unforgettable joy. While last October’s 1-0 victory against the world champions Germany was one such moment that made this disposition seem worthwhile, it signalled the end of a 14-year wait for a ‘big night’ in which successes in the broader Irish sporting consensus had been almost annual in their occurrence.
Yet, football remains Ireland’s front-runner in terms of its ability to generate national frenzy. Although qualification for Euro 2016 was met with a touch more trepidation than was on show four years ago, a brief delineation of the fine margins upon which Ireland secured their place in France is worth noting. With only two points garnered from four games against Scotland and Poland, Ireland’s victory was an absolute necessity. Their third-place finish may have granted Ireland an opportunity to qualify via a play-off, yet, were it not for the recent expansion of the tournament from 16 to 24 teams, this finish would have yielded no reward. In hindsight, there could have been few complaints.
Of the 11 Irish players selected to face Germany last October, only five could lay claim to Premier League status in any meaningful sense. Unthinkable though it was for a generation which had witnessed Ireland peak in September 2001, the subsequent lapse into an international wilderness allowed Ireland’s altogether ordinary attempts to qualify for Euro 2016 appear somewhat more impressive than they were. Foolhardy belief and the fastidious organisational skills of Martin O’Neill cultivated a mood in which Ireland were capable of upsetting a complacent German side if their luck could sustain. Fortunately, it did. That such humility was not the order of the day as Ireland prepared for the Dutch 14 years prior engenders the fascination that still surrounds Ireland’s previous great day at Lansdowne Road.
The Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal understood the confidence which permeated the Irish squad of this remarkable era. Boasting experience, promise and a raft of established high-performers, seven of the eleven who started against Van Gaal’s Netherlands went on to finish the 2001-02 Premier League season in the top half of the table. From Ireland’s international bow at the 1988 European Championships, the seven successive qualifying campaigns – up to and including that for the 2002 World Cup of which the Netherlands fixture was part – would see Ireland finish in second place; a consistent sampling of the nation’s ability to meet and occasionally exceed expectations. In overcoming the Netherlands – extending in the process a five-year unbeaten record in Dublin – and finishing behind the group-winners Portugal on goal difference alone, Ireland stood at a competitive high point firmly established on the back of what had been its most progressive footballing decade.
Yet, progression in terms of competitive yards gained did not dispel the undermining flaw which would ultimately hamper Ireland’s hope for a continued bout of success in lieu of defeating the Dutch. Jogi Löw gave his thoughts on the current Irish generation of footballers before his world champions arrived in Dublin for their fixture a few months ago: “sometimes they play with long balls, sometimes they try to find another way.” With a succinct – albeit accurate – assessment of Ireland’s available threats, Löw highlighted a tactical trend that may occasionally vary but has rarely departed from the Irish approach – regardless of the personnel involved or how well things appeared to be developing. Proposed diversities of style have failed to alter Ireland’s absolute reliance on the perceived solidarity of their defence, on a resolute abhorrence for saying die and on an exceptional individual who may perhaps enliven the possibility of building upon that solidity and spirit. Encapsulating all facets of what made this particular Irish side of 2001 tick, dutiful though it was to the standards which would shortly see the nation recede in international vigour, was the particular individual now in question: Roy Keane.
At 31 years of age, Roy Keane in 2001 was already two years further down the international line than his club-mate Paul Scholes was when he retired from international football. They were the midfield fulcrum upon which Manchester United were based at the time; variations in character do not dispel the shared sense of provincialism both men appeared determined to uphold. At Old Trafford they were cherished, challenged and encouraged. For Ireland and England respectively, Keane and Scholes appeared mistreated and often under-appreciated. Keane nonetheless remained the outstanding talent in a fairly shallow pool of available Irish players; self-imposed exile in the manner of Scholes would have come at a more noticeable cost for both player and country. While his performances had been unwaveringly strong (especially through this 2002 campaign), the antagonism with his manager Mick McCarthy meant the departure of one or other was always possible, regardless of how successful Ireland could become. Ultimately, Keane would play eight more competitive internationals for Ireland after the 2001 victory against the Netherlands. Two of these would come against Cyprus and Iran as the 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign came to a successful conclusion. The next six however wouldn’t occur until under the management of Brian Kerr as Ireland attempted to qualify for the World Cup of 2006. Although the story of Keane and McCarthy's fractious relationship (their animosity towards one another stretched back a decade before the ultimate fallout) is not the determining feature of this great game, the manner in which it ultimately unravelled has altered the retrospective manner in which we must now view the match from an Irish perspective.
Had it come from a less expected figure, Roy Keane’s immediate dismantling of Marc Overmars on the halfway line may well have appeared repugnant, violent and in accordance with Ireland’s perceived inferiority on the day. Intense physicality, however, was not an element of the game entirely foreign to the Dutch midfield. Mark van Bommel swiftly levelled Kevin Kilbane with animosity of his own. Like Muhammad Ali’s close-range opening shots against the more powerful and dangerous George Foreman in the first round of the Rumble in the Jungle, Keane’s challenge was never intended to do physical harm to his opponent. It was instead the throwing down of a gauntlet that would usher forth the less refined brutishness of a Dutch side that was equally unafraid of throwing its weight around. It was an approach that kept the German referee Helmut Krug busy.
Unlike their approach to their previous meeting almost a year earlier, complacency was not a contributing factor in the capitulation of this Dutch side when it visited Dublin. Ireland’s eventual victory did not disguise the fact the Netherlands outplayed them for vast portions of the game. Conor O’Callaghan’s retrospective assessment of this tie from an Irish point of view (in Red Mist: Roy Keane & The Football Civil War) does more than most to illustrate the way the Dutch dominated; “[It] was exactly 364 days after the 2-2 draw in the Amsterdam Arena – one for every chance Holland missed at Lansdowne Road.” With an immediate display of Dutch prowess, Patrick Kluivert, doubling up the pressure a resilient Overmars was already exerting on Ireland’s Gary Kelly, drifted beyond a 21-year-old Richard Dunne – to whom pace was never a willing ally – and proceeded to slot the ball comfortably beyond Shay Given’s reach toward the bottom corner. Three years previously, in a World Cup semi-final against Brazil, Kluivert celebrated an 87th-minute equaliser with the confident aplomb of a player for whom a series of earlier opportunities squandered was little cause for concern. Back in Dublin, however, as the ball drifted beyond Given and indeed the goal itself, Kluivert’s miss appeared to strike him as both typical and debilitating. Cajoled by Ruud van Nistelrooy and comforted by Overmars, something intrinsic seemed lacking in a player who at 25 years of age was only four goals shy of equalling Dennis Bergkamp’s Dutch scoring record. It would remain a telling facet of Kluivert’s contribution over these 90 minutes and of the Dutch efforts in their entirety. Although it had been forthcoming throughout the campaign as a whole, their performance in Dublin did little to mask the sense of unease in this Dutch setup.
With both Frank de Boer and Edgar Davids marooned in an international purgatory (both had tested positive for unusually high levels of the anabolic steroid nandrolone and were unavailable for selection), and Michael Reiziger absent through injury, Van Gaal was limited in the extent to which he could base his team on his 1995 Ajax Champions League winners, able to pick only three. Undeterred (publicly at least), a typically forthright Van Gaal asserted his unwavering adherence to the Dutch proclivity for a 4-3-3 formation in a manner that seemed to render the question itself more surprising than anything else. The portrait of Van Gaal as equal parts genius and “arrogant fuck” that the Dutch journalist Hugo Borst presents in his biography-cum-personal memoir O, Louis, appears to suggest that at this late stage of his first spell in charge of the Netherlands, Van Gaal had “lost his touch with the same players who had brought him victory after victory at Ajax”. Seemingly perhaps not all that important given the relative scarcity of their involvement for this particular tie, it is nonetheless telling that from Overmars and Kluivert in particular, both young stars in 1995 the like of which Van Gaal prided himself in developing, little by way of their actual potential was witnessed in Dublin. More pertinent still is the question as to whether this was really the best that one could expect from a Van Gaal side of any making. While perhaps without “his” players, in Van Nistelrooy, Jaap Stam, Philipp Cocu and Van Bommel, Van Gaal was in possession of a group for whom experience and success were no strangers. Furthermore, given the indelible impression his stylish Ajax side would have made on such players as they matured in its shadow throughout the mid-90s, it is mystifying that his inherent – albeit somewhat altered – “Dutch” approach did not successfully take. Although Holland’s ultimate failure to qualify for the World Cup would cost Van Gaal his job, he was but one in a substantial line of managers similarly incapable of rendering something worthwhile from such strong Dutch resources.
In his attempts to identify the “neurotic genius of Dutch football”, David Winner’s Brilliant Orange does not shy away from the Dutch propensity for “screwing up at the vital moments of the biggest competitions.” Perhaps the more poignant recurrence in anticipation of their trip to Dublin was the seemingly cathartic manner in which Dutch sides going reasonably well fall apart. World Cup finalists in 1974 and 1978, Holland would not feature again at a World Cup until Italia 90. Finalists and semi-finalists again at the World Cups of 2010 and 2014 respectively, even the expanded remit of the 2016 European Championship could not save Holland the ignominy of another catastrophic capitulation. With two semi-final knockouts coming by way of penalties in the immediate background of the Dutch team that arrived to face Ireland, their pedigree and experience was doubtless. This ought to have been – if not straightforward given Ireland’s relative strengths and their penchant for simply not losing in Dublin – a suitably competitive environment in which the Dutch could realistically kick on and progress to South Korea/Japan with a flourish. Yet, arriving as they did in need of a win and nothing less, Holland’s optimal seeding at the group’s outset failed to give them the meaningful advantage that it ought to have done.
As the first half in Dublin wore on, it became apparent that Ireland’s central defensive pairing of Staunton and Dunne did not look capable of handling the Dutch attacking threat. Still dwelling perhaps on the good fortune of Kluivert’s earlier miss, Staunton succumbed to following Van Nistelrooy as he dropped back towards the halfway line. A direct ball from Van der Sar landed in the proximity of both men although neither could get a productive head to it; more to Staunton’s detriment this. With Ian Harte covering the ground that Staunton had vacated beside Dunne, Boudewijn Zenden was allowed ample space and time to meet the loose ball. Dismissed as ineffectual and “not good enough” for the Netherlands by RTÉ’s triumvirate of panellists Eamon Dunphy, Liam Brady and John Giles, Zenden’s decision was made for him by Shay Given’s fairly advanced position; simply loft the already bouncing ball up and over the goalkeeper into the empty goal. Zenden, though, all but lifted the ball onto Given’s chest: danger averted… again.
The Netherlands were to be gifted many such chances throughout the afternoon. Yet, with pertinence that will be familiar for many who witnessed Van Gaal’s Manchester United side, the Dutch centre-half Kevin Hofland recalls the demise that ensued within the Dutch mindset as these early opportunities were squandered: “We played the perfect game in the first 10 minutes, but we didn’t score. We had a lot of possession, but you have to score.” Once beyond those unrewarding 10 minutes, the Dutch did appear to dwell more gravely on the realities of the situation which faced them. An early goal probably would have sparked a flurry – such disappointment at the bitter end of a progressive campaign was no rarity for the Irish contingent watching. But, as it failed to transpire despite further efforts from Zenden and van Nistelrooy, Ireland began to identify telling weaknesses in their opposition. With a 21-year-old Robbie Keane and a 22-year-old Damien Duff leading the Irish attack – the selection of Duff ahead of the more obvious aerial threat that Niall Quinn would bring signified an important (and rewarding) selection on McCarthy’s behalf – both demonstrated a consistent source of nuisance for Stam and Hofland. Duff’s eager trickery would continue to frustrate Hofland to the point that he garnered the day’s first yellow card. Keane on the other hand continually found himself frequenting slightly insufficient space to punish the Dutch, but the signs were nonetheless promising.
Still level at the end of the first half, the second began with an equally earnest Dutch approach to dismay the Irish resistance as rapidly as possible. When presented with a wonderful through-ball from Cocu, Van Nistelrooy, the man who would finish the domestic English season with Manchester United as the PFA Player of the Year, shot with an uncharacteristic degree of insipidness; he too appeared startlingly unsettled in front of goal. Two further efforts in quick succession saw Given come alive to the threat of Overmars. On the ropes but surviving, it was to be an Irish player who would contribute the game’s first decisive moment. Wary perhaps of how foolish he had appeared so early on, Gary Kelly, already on a yellow card, barged through the back of Overmars with senseless determination. Isolated on the left wing of the Dutch attack, it was a moment of carelessness that left Ireland facing the final half-hour with ten men. McCarthy sacrificed Robbie Keane for Kelly’s positional replacement Steve Finnan; scarcely could he have imagined the role he was about to play.
Rattled by the prospect of a half-hour with backs presumably pressed to the wall, Richard Dunne’s attempts at – according to the co-commentator Jim Beglin – “playing out from the back as if we were Brazil all of a sudden” ended as well as could be hoped. With Overmars and Van Nistelrooy applying suitable pressure, the loose ball which ended at Finnan’s feet was quickly reclaimed by Cocu who sought to exploit the newfound space in front of Given. Although seemingly harmless, the presence of Van Nistelrooy again appeared to panic Staunton whose efforts at a headed back-pass slipped by his own goalkeeper and drifted about as far wide as Kluivert’s opening effort. That the referee failed to signal for a penalty for the collision that ensued between Van Nistelrooy and Given was met with more disbelief than outrage – save for Van Gaal who appeared about as pleased with this misdemeanour as he had with Marcel Desailly’s high-foot of six years before.
All the while, Roy Keane and his midfield partner Matt Holland had spent vast majorities of the match patrolling the susceptible areas directly in front of Dunne and Staunton. Attempting to stall Dutch progression while simultaneously holding onto the ball when it did then become available, Keane’s marauding runs with the ball into the Dutch half were noteworthy for the recuperation they allowed those Irish players who stood and watched him go. Doubtful as it is that he paid much heed to any instruction Mick McCarthy may have given him (it is equally doubtful, one suspects, that McCarthy even bothered trying), this composed display of selfless running to and fro highlights Keane’s intrinsic importance to the Irish side he was leading. As the Irish commentator George Hamilton noted as Keane embarked on one of these jaunts, “Now, Roy Keane, you can always depend on him.”
On the rare occasion when Keane then picked up the ball within the periphery of the Dutch half, drifting beyond the flailing and tired-looking Van Bommel and heading diagonally towards goal, Lansdowne Road realised the possibility that something was on. With Ireland’s foremost attacking player slightly behind him, Keane managed to release the ball to Duff before being clattered himself by the marauding Stam. Twice Krug played the advantage and as the ball fell to Duff he quickly sought an outlet for it. Passing it across the field into Finnan’s path, all of a sudden Ireland had their freshest player facing down the Dutch captain Cocu on the edge of the Netherlands box. Appearing not entirely certain about his next move, Finnan ran towards Cocu, seemingly waiting for Cocu to decide which way he ought to run. Reaching a stalemate and running instead straight for Cocu, Finnan dragged the ball back and found just enough space to loop a cross – left-footed – across the Dutch box. Duff’s run across Stam’s line of vision allowed the ball to travel freely and fall perfectly into the path of Jason McAteer. At the very tip of Van der Sar’s six-yard box, McAteer, a player out of favour with Blackburn Rovers at the time, side-footed his finish into the opposite corner of the net, far from the keeper’s reach. With the mastery one would have expected from Kluivert, Van Nistelrooy or Overmars, McAteer’s goal illuminated the susceptibility and tiredness of a Dutch team that had allowed him to drift into their box.
Although the remainder of the match saw the Netherlands press calmly and collectively, Ireland’s increasingly congested penalty area made the prospect of equalising seem remote. Kluivert and Van Nistelrooy again missed opportunities but this was to be the beginning of a Dutch exodus from the lofty peaks they had inhabited. A semi-final appearance at Euro 2004 would flatter to deceive. Five games there yielded only one win over 90 minutes, against Latvia. Losses to the Czech Republic and ultimately Portugal were supplanted by a draw with Germany and the overcoming of Sweden in a quarter-final penalty shoot-out. Van Gaal’s replacement Dick Advocaat resigned in the fallout. As Marco van Basten stepped in, those players of whom van Gaal had such high hopes when he took the job in 2000 stepped out. The Dutch era of Kluivert, De Boer, Seedorf and Davids was over; it had yielded no memories to match those which van Gaal had helped create with Ajax in 1995.
For Ireland, a play-off with Iran never seemed particularly to destabilise the impression that they were World Cup-bound. Although best corroborated from the plethora of sources now available on the subject, Roy Keane’s absence for the second leg in Tehran would in time garner a distinct importance beyond the mere immediate concern that Ireland was lacking its best player for its most decisive game. With their rift already established and escalating, biting point in the Keane/McCarthy feud would arise most prominently on the Pacific island of Saipan, when McCarthy apparently questioned the actual severity of the injury that had rendered Keane incapable of playing the second leg of the play-off. Although that’s another chapter of what remains the second most intriguing era for Irish football, it is nonetheless compelling to witness the mutual distaste both men carried for the other even in the direct aftermath of their finest hour together as manager and captain. Among the adoration, disbelief and celebration, one photographer on the Lansdowne Road pitch captured the moment both men came face to face and shook hands after victory had been secured against the Netherlands. Only, neither man looked the other in the eye as cordialities were exchanged. For a few months more they would struggle onward. For Keane, without the benefit of being involved in the upcoming World Cup, this was the final time an Irish crowd would witness him at his very best. In the intervening years for Mick McCarthy, two Football League Championship promotions with Sunderland and Wolves (04-05, 08-09) would further demonstrate his ability to generate success in not overly glamorous roles. With many Irish fans quite open to the possibility of his managerial return one day, his fine job in taking Ireland out of a group in which Germany and Cameroon (coming off the back of two successive triumphs at the Cup of Nations) were major threats, has not been forgotten. While eventual elimination at the hands of Spain came by way of penalty shoot-out in the round of 16, the underlying disappointment rested more upon the belief that had Keane been present, there really was not that much to be terrified of in a Spanish side that could have been overcome. Had Ireland been regimented and organised in a manner that one imagines Keane may have inspired by presence alone, a quarter-final with South Korea, a semi-final meeting with Germany once again, and (why not, while we’re dreaming), a final with Brazil may seem ludicrously over-the-top to the outsider. Yet, such was the level of belief that this Irish team inspired. Nonetheless their second-best showing at an international tournament, with the 1-0 victory against the Netherlands 10 months previously, Ireland had appeared poised to perhaps make the necessary step forward that would render their underdog status unflattering and witness an evolution in terms of expectancy and performance that might have transformed the best that both Keane and McCarthy had to offer into a formidable Irish set up for the long-term. It didn’t happen then and, given the general dip in terms of the quality of players available for Irish selection since, it may never happen now at all. From the Netherlands in 2001 to Germany in 2015, Irish international football remains the bon vivant for a resilient fan base content to persevere with mediocrity so long as we may on occasion disturb football’s established hierarchy and dream again.