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Tuesday 6 December 2016

Irish nemesis Toni is still on song

Aidan Fitzmaurice talks to Austrian legend Toni Polster about Jack Charlton, Johnny Logan, scoring goals and Ireland's hopes against his nation

Former Austrian footballer Toni Polster poses at a trophy cabinet at his club in Vienna, Weiner Viktoria, last night
Former Austrian footballer Toni Polster poses at a trophy cabinet at his club in Vienna, Weiner Viktoria, last night

We are 10 minutes into an interview with Toni Polster when there's an interruption.

A fan, who was probably only a baby when the man with one of the most famous mullets around at the time was banging in goals across Europe including two goals in a 3-1 win for Austria over the Republic of Ireland in Dublin, a loss which was just another Irish disaster that led to the ending of the Jack Charlton era.

But the fan still knows who Polster, now 52, is. As Polster pauses our interview, does the needful and poses for a photo, I am reminded of the Alan Partridge episode when Alan asks a fan to approach him and ask for an autograph while Alan's in the middle of a meeting with some executives from Irish TV, the hapless TV presenter hoping that the fake autograph request will make him look good.

Heroes

There's nothing fake about this scenario, though and the young fan is genuine.

Polster's on home ground, speaking in the bar at the humble but welcoming ground of Weiner Viktoria, the fourth-tier club he manages these days, surrounded by friendly faces, old pals who are only too happy to sit down and have a coffee and a smoke (Polster smokes as do many Austrians) with one of the nation's football legends.

Polster is one of the most famous faces in Austria today, not just from his football career (44 goals in 95 games for the national team, their second-highest scorer) but the stuff that happens beyond the pitch.

He's been a singer, and a successful one, and he laughs at the notion that he could be described as the Austrian Johnny Logan. "I like Johnny, he's a great singer," he smiles. He's a regular on the reality TV shows, he's done cooking and dancing for the cameras, he writes columns and does TV punditry on football.

Through his website (toni-shirts.at) he sells.. well, check shirts, at €90 a pop.

But he's still remembered in Ireland. We treasure our heroes but we also remember the names of those footballers who cursed us: Kieft in '88, Schillachi in '90, Stavrevski in '99, Henry in '09.

And in 1995 it was Polster. From the low of a 0-0 draw away to Liechtenstein, a week later Ireland faced Austria in Dublin. The week before the game is now the stuff of legend, with tales of endless boozing at the Irish team HQ in Limerick, Jack Charlton's decision to leave the players in the hands of his son while he went elsewhere for a few days, and of course the Harry Ramsden's Challenge.

"I had all the movement of a crippled elephant," John Aldridge says of the training session on the eve of the Austria game, the Irish players training with their bellies full of the fish and chips downed in Ramsden's an hour before.

Ireland, somehow, took the lead through Ray Houghton but Polster levelled on 70 minutes, Austria took the lead then Polster scored again, this clearly the end of the Charlton era.

"The Dublin game was a big day for us," says Polster.

"I know I got the man of the match trophy that day in Lansdowne Road, I still have it in my house.

"I enjoyed the day in Dublin. I remember that Ireland had a big crowd, I think the fans had gone there expecting to see their team win and get back into the frame for Euro qualification and we spoiled that, but I also recall that the Irish fans appreciated me as a player for what I'd done and they congratulated me.

"We were just happy to beat such a big team, an Irish team we know had been to the last two World Cups,

"We didn't start so well in Dublin that day and we were losing 1-0. But we found more energy and managed to score three goals.

"It's interesting to hear now about the Irish players drinking beer and eating their fish and chips but I don't think we were aware of it on the day, it certainly wasn't clear to us that they had a problem, we were just focusing on our own game, and I can't say the Irish keeper was to blame for the two goals I scored.

"They were just good goals, I think. Ireland were the better team in the first half but we were much better in the second half.

"I meet people from Ireland every now and again, maybe in Irish pubs here in Vienna, and when they hear my name they say 'Oh, you are that Toni Polster'. It's nice for me that I made a mark in other countries and not just at home in Austria."

Something of a maverick as a player, a man who liked a pint and a fag, he may not have suited top-flight management and lasted just four games, in 2013, as boss of a team in Austria's top division.

He's now in charge of local side Weiner Viktoria, mid-table in the equivalent of Division Four but he tries not to trade off the past. "I don't talk too much to the players about the goals I scored. I don't think they'd care, some of them may have seen the goals on Youtube but they don't want to listen to me talking about a goal I scored 20 years ago.

"I don't feel the need to tell the boys in my team now how good I was when I was 25," he says. "But I was good."

He still does TV work but has cut back on the music. "The singing started off as a joke, but it went well as I did have a good voice, the records went gold, double gold and platinum," he says. "But I don't sing any more, I don't want to have to kiss the asses of the radio stations."

He played in two World Cup finals tournaments and would love to see the side make it in 2018. "The team has to win tomorrow, otherwise they have no chance of qualifying. It wouldn't look good for Austria to get a draw, you should win your home games," he says.

"I think Austria tomorrow need to keep the ball on the ground, if they go into an aerial battle with Ireland they'll lose. I think our players have better technique than yours. It's important for us to win, if we don't beat Ireland we will not go to the World Cup."

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