Way back when, in the days of midweek highlights only on the television for international football matches, there was a strong sense of order to proceedings. An hour-long edition of “Sportsnight” would feature England’s latest bumblings at a quarter-full Wembley, followed by brief highlights of Scotland and Wales, before finishing up with Northern Ireland, at a usually rain-sodden Windsor Park, usually accompanied by the strangely comforting voice of Jackie Fullerton. In the spirit of those cosy, warm evenings, it’s time enough for a round-up of how the other “home” nations got on at the weekend.
Considering what happened to them in 1974, 1982, 1986, 1990 and 1996 (yes, I did deliberately leave 1978 out of that list), there’s a fairly powerful case for saying that Scotland are due a little luck. You might have thought that they would struggle, having suddenly and unexpectedly lost Walter Smith as coach, and they certainly made a meal of their win against Georgia against Hampden Park on Saturday afternoon. Having missed a number of excellent chances, they eventually took all three points with a late, late strike by Celtic’s Craig Beattie. It looked, for quite a while in the evening, unless Lithuania would do them a favour by holding France to a draw, but a second-half goal by Nicolas Anelka put paid to that, and now they have a crucial match in Bari on Wednesday night to look forward to. The Italians have been poor since last summer’s World Cup (a reflection, perhaps, of the ongoing crisis in their domestic game there – the Italian players are even more travel-shy than the English counterparts in this respect), so the scene could be set for an upset. Even if they do manage this, though, the Scots will have an uphill battle to get through. They will still have to get results against the French in Paris, and then finish up with three very tough matches at home to Ukraine, away to Georgia and at home against Italy. Do I think they’ll do it? Can I get back to you on Thursday morning about that?
Ireland and Wales were both wretched at Croke Park on Saturday afternoon – if you were from the GAA and had never seen a football match before, you’d be wondering what all the fuss was about. There were approximately three moments of skill in the course of the entire ninety minutes – the most of significant of which was Robbie Keane’s pass for the alarmingly aptly-named Matthew Ireland to score the only goal of the match. Wales, of course, are now more or less out, which was borne out after the match in what can only be described as a moment of surprising clarity from John Toshack, who admitted as much in his post-match interviews. The admission will alarm the stout yeomen of the Football Association of Wales, who have reportedly sold just 11,000 tickets for their match against San Marino on Wednesday night at the Millennium Stadium. It is, I dare say, too late for them to cut the ticket prices now, so expect a very echoey-sounding crowd if you tune in to watch it on the television. Ireland were done favour by the Germans, who won 2-1 in Prague against the Czech Republic on Saturday night, but Irish hopes of qualifying for next summer’s jamboree are, I think, an illusion. It’s a reasonably open secret that the players have no confidence in coach Steve Staunton, as can be seen in the remarkable comment from midfielder Lee Carsley after Saturday’s match that, whilst Staunton had told the Irish players before the match what position they would be playing in, he’d omitted to mention what their exact roles on the pitch were. Ireland are level on points with the Czechs, but they still have to play the handy-looking Slovaks home and away, and go to Prague. Ah – and they have to play Germany at home, as well.
Finally, Northern Ireland’s 4-1 win in Liechenstein may have been perfunctory enough, but it was a critical result in a couple of ways. Firstly, it kept the gap between them and Spain at four points, and the Spanish, ironically, did them a favour by winning themselves, 2-1 against Denmark on Saturday night. Northern Ireland play group leaders Sweden on Wednesday night in Belfast. The Swedes have won all four of their matches so far, but they’re likely to lose that record eventually, and why shouldn’t it be Northern Ireland that end it? This is, after all, a team that has, in the last eighteen months or so, beaten England and Spain, and drawn away to Denmark. A win could put them seven points clear of the Spanish and the Danes. Stranger things have happened.
The rest of Europe’s matches went largely according to form, although there were a couple of surprises to be seen. Kazakhstan beat the erratic Serbs by two goals to one, whilst the Dutch were held at home by Romania, blowing Group F right wide open – if second-placed Bulgaria and third-placed Romania both win their game in hand, the Dutch would be down to third place in that group. In a match marred by crowd trouble, Turkey beat Greece 4-1 in Athens, but the Greeks were done a huge favour by Bosnia-Herzegovina, who won 2-1 in Oslo against Norway. The Norwegians are now down to fourth place in their group, and their chances of qualifying now appear slim. Finally, an honorary mention goes to Cowdenbeath’s Pat Clarke, who scored five times in Cowden’s 6-1 at Stranraer in the Scottish League Second Division yesterday afternoon. According to the club’s profile for him, he was born in Edinburgh, but I still think that Steve McClaren should do a quick double-check to make sure he can’t play for England. They could do with that sort of goal-scoring form at the moment.