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Long: I'm happy to win ugly

AS THE CROW flies, Andorra is just 500 miles away from San Marino.

And as Ireland's squad arrived in Andorra today from the temporary base in Barcelona, which was their home for the last 24 hours, thoughts may have strayed to the other principality of San Marino, over on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea.

We're now at the tail-end of a European Championship qualifying campaign with only two games left, but in February 2007, Ireland headed for San Marino to play the fifth game of the campaign. Battered by those early defeats by Germany (0-1) and Cyprus (2-5), Steve Staunton's team had at least regained some pride -- slightly -- with the subsequent results, a 1-1 draw at home to the Czech Republic and a 5-0 beating of San Marino in Dublin.

What unfolded on that dark Wednesday night in San Marino still chills the soul of many who were there as Ireland sneaked a very undeserved 2-1 win with an injury time goal from Stephen Ireland (remember him?).



Involved

Eight of the Irish team which played that day are still involved in the squad, and the subject of San Marino -- the ultimate banana skin -- is bound to crop up when lads like Richard Dunne, John O'Shea, Robbie Keane and Damien Duff chat over meals in the next 24 hours.

Ireland didn't exactly have a shadow squad in San Marino: Finnan, Dunne, O'Shea, Harte, Duff, Carsley, Ireland and Keane all played so it wasn't a case of Ireland's 'B' squad bravely taking away a win.

Shane Long has already taken time to recall the events of San Marino, the game where he made his debut, and their relevance to tomorrow's game.

And the West Brom striker says he'd accept a repeat of what happened that day if -- and that's a big if -- the outcome is the same.

"I'll take a bad performance tomorrow if we win the game 1-0," Long told the Herald before the squad's departure from Dublin yesterday.

"At this stage of the campaign it's about results and nothing else.



Matters

"All that matters is getting three points in Andorra. How we go about that is not important, and if it's the same as what happened in San Marino, where we win the game. I'm not bothered.

"If we win the game with an own goal in the last minute I don't care. Once we come away from Andorra with a win to take into the Armenia game at home, and hopefully then we can get a win at home to Armenia in front of 50,000 and go on to the finals.

"In a perfect world we'd like to play well in Andorra and win, a 5-0 win would be nice, but if it's an ugly 1-0 win on Friday I don't mind," added Long.

The Tipperary lad, then with Reading, was a rookie when he took that plane to San Marino. He'd celebrated his 20th birthday only two weeks earlier and was making his debut when Staunton named him in the team for the San Marino game.

It was a day Long will not forget. "I remember the San Marino game well, it was my first start," he says.

"It was a horrible game. We were getting kicked all over the place. It was a horrible pitch, they had 10 men behind the ball and it was a really hard game to play in.

"But we have grown from that. We didn't play well and it was a bad performance. I don't think anyone could say that they played well, but we got the job done.



Survivor

"We won the game, and if it's raised by anyone in the time before we play Andorra tomorrow, all we will focus on is the fact that we won the match."

Wayne Henderson is another of the Irish survivors from that day.

Sadly his career has not survived, as he was forced to retire from the game earlier this year due to persistent back problems. He too bears the scars of San Marino and he retains a link to the current crop -- in his role as a football agent he represents some current Ireland players as well as the very promising young Wolves defender Matt Doherty.

"It wasn't the high point of my career, I'll say that much," Henderson said this week, referring to the goal which San Marino scored against him.

"There was a bounce of a ball, a slip by me and they had the ball in the net. I was gutted to see that goal go in. San Marino away was such a big game for me as I was just making my way in international football, and I was l left with my arse hanging out the window until Stephen Ireland rescued us, rescued me, with the winning goal."

Confusion over the venue for the game means there will be only a tiny Irish support in Andorra tomorrow, with lots more Irish based in Barcelona for the match, but Henderson feels that the positive mood and backdrop to this game will help, in a way that negativity hindered the team in San Marino.

"From the start, something was just not right that night," Henderson says.

"I remember there was a bit of a bad mood in the air when we got to the ground. And it didn't help that we were at the stadium early, way too early for some reason.



unhappy

"A lot of the fans there were unhappy, not so much with Steve Staunton himself but the upper echelons of the FAI and there was a bit of a protest from them about how things were going, and I think that transferred to the team. Something was in the air that night and it showed in the performance."

But Henderson, who won his sixth and last senior cap against Denmark later that year, feels that the current side will not put on a repeat performance.

"I'd speak to some of the lads in the squad regularly and I know there is a lot more confidence there now," Henderson says.

"Confidence was really low around that time because of all that was going on.

"I think they are mentally stronger, maybe that experience helped make them stronger. I know that the San Marino game made me try to push on in my own career.

"I feel that the team Trapattoni has now is well capable of going to Andorra and getting the win and the performance they need to push on to next Tuesday and Armenia."