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Irish roll the dice

ANYONE under the age of 20 will have no clear memories of Liechtenstein and that fateful night on the side of an Alp when Ireland's football reputation fell down a hole.

It couldn't happen again on a different mountain top in a different country, could it? Is there any real chance that Giovanni Trapattoni's |hidebound adherence to one way, and one way alone, could lead to another awful night to |add to the list. Cyprus, San Marino and now Andorra la Vella?

None of the bad days in Ireland's football history could have been predicted in advance and while that stomach-churning defeat by Cyprus during Steve Staunton's time was the worst in terms of points and status lost, the draw with Liechtenstein was probably the nadir.

Hindsight tells us that Cyprus were making big strides at the time towards an increased profile as a football nation and, since then, they have beaten good international teams and broken into the Champions League group stage at club level.

Aberration

San Marino was an extraordinary aberration brought about by the crazy appointment of Steve Staunton when he was not equipped for the job and his attempt to manage a squad of players with a brittle group personality and a sour view of the world. At least they left with three points, however hard won they were.

But the Liechtenstein result came after USA 1994 and with Ireland riding high in the world rankings on the back of a decade of good times.

Sure, Jack Charlton lost some key men before the game such as Roy Keane and Andy Townsend but the opposition was so bad that the idea of a draw never entered anyone's head.

Talk to some of the men involved that day and it quickly becomes clear that it was an accumulation of factors which brought Ireland low in Liechtenstein.

Four days of preparation in a hotel on the outskirts of Limerick amounted to a grand pub crawl which ended with a full meal in Harry Ramsden's and the cutting of a ribbon on a pub in Tallaght before the squad flew to Zurich and a date with destiny.

By then, Charlton had lost control. His play

ers were folk heroes and everywhere they went pints were produced to celebrate great days gone by, but the manager didn't really understand how far into excess his squad had delved.

They indulged themselves to the limit and beyond and with them, the younger men recently introduced to the squad. Heavy drinking and the full exploration of the delights delivered by iconic status were as much a part of match preparation as a discussion of the relative strengths of the opposition.

That is a legacy the team is still living with. Charlton's team was given enormous latitude by supporters and even management because of what they had done and those who came later lived the life but didn't deliver on the pitch until 2002.

Circus

The circus had to end sometime and it would be fair to say that Charlton's great run hit the buffers in Eschen and even though Ireland reached a never-to-be-forgotten play-off against the Dutch at Anfield, the wheels came off in a rich man's bank vault high in the Swiss Alps.

Trapattoni had to cope with a similar disregard for the fine points of big match preparation when his players went AWOL in North Co Dublin but nothing like the same scale of madness.

For those of us tasked with faithfully reporting the highs and lows of the Charlton era, recent events in Ireland's base in Portmarnock would have been nothing more than an aperitif before the main event.

Trapattoni met reports of late night carousing with a grandfatherly concern in public but he was privately furious that discipline was ignored and, behind the scenes, hard words were spoken. The players have been, relatively speaking, on their best behaviour ever since. The days we are living through have all but outlawed excess on any serious scale and what was easily forgiven in the 1990s is no longer acceptable.

Add to that the fact the geography of football has changed to such a degree that those representing a small principality high in the Pyrenees are no longer considered ripe for a huge and very positive spike on the goal difference front.

Yet for all the improvement seen among football's perennial minnows, Andorra have scored just one goal in this campaign to date and that was the one which gave Trapattoni a dose of the jitters in the Aviva a year ago. Maybe that is why there is a real concern among fans and pundits about tomorrow night's penultimate Group B qualifier.

It is not difficult to understand why this should be the case. Trap's one-dimensional approach to international football as Ireland manager conjures up all sorts of worrying scenarios in Andorra.

Subtlety

Charlton didn't have a Plan B in 1995 and when a touch more subtlety and a few more passes would have easily unhinged Liechtenstein, devotion to a |system above all else was both Ireland's greatest strength and greatest weakness.

Trapattoni has been foostering around with the makings of a Plan B and seemed to be tinkering with a five-man midfield at Espanyol's training ground in Barcelona yesterday.

But when it comes to the crunch, he will change nothing and all we can do is throw the dice and pray that Andorra stick to their part in the unfolding Group B drama and behave like the cannon-fodder they should be to a squad of highly paid Premier League professionals who should be able to win this game with their eyes shut.