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Nightmares we'll never forget

Roger Casement could have been writing about football when he observed, "I know of two tragic histories in the word, that of Ireland and that of Macedonia. Both of them have been deprived and tormented."

In Ireland's case, much of the football grief was inflicted by Macedonia. Particularly one Saturday evening in Skopje in 1999 when we were just 15 seconds away from qualification for the European Championships.

As we counted down the seconds to victory, a horror show unfolded.

With five minutes to go, Matt Holland came off the bench for his first cap to replace Mark Kennedy, who'd had a busy game. Robbie Keane had already been substituted by Keith O'Neill earlier in the second half. Ireland were 1-0 up thanks to an early Niall Quinn goal. Having already beaten Macedonia 1-0 in Lansdowne Road, all Ireland had to do was hold on and run down the clock.

Alan Kelly was playing a blinder in goal, shutting out a desperate late surge by the opposition. One of his saves resulted in a corner. Surely nothing could go wrong?



Sick

We'd been consigned to the play-offs in our previous two major championships and come out as the losing side. In truth, we were sick of play-offs by then.

In Skopje it looked as our one goal advantage would be enough to put us through as group-toppers. As Macedonia lined up their corner, the ghost of a chilly November night in Brussels in '97, when a goal by Belgium's Nilis denied us extra time in the second leg of the play-offs for World Cup '98, lurked at the corner of our consciousness.

In Jack Charlton's last campaign as manager, we trooped to Anfield before Christmas in 1995 to have Holland, and two Patrick Kluivert goals, demolish our hopes of a place in the 1996 European Championships.

Back in Skopje in '99 the unfolding drama came with a colourful and gripping back story.

Ireland knew Macedonia from the 1998 World Cup qualifiers when having beaten them 3-0 in Dublin, we went a goal up in the away leg. That was as good at it got in the second leg.

Ireland went on to concede two penalties and had Jason McAteer sent off before the final whistle saw Macedonia claim the points on a 3-2 scoreline.



Shock

The result was a shock to the system. Angry at being red-carded for a rash challenge, a frustrated McAteer put his foot through the dressing-room door. Jason hadn't enjoyed the visit in '97. "It's one of those places you just didn't want to go to," he recalled. "Back then there was a lot of poverty about.

"Our hotel was fine but the food wasn't good and the training was difficult, not something you looked forward to. You wanted to get in and out as soon as possible."

It was after this unexpected defeat that McCarthy's team introduced a yellow shirt bearing the legend 'I had a Macedonia' for the player who'd been least impressive in training.

The yellow vest wasn't a new idea. But the slogan was. While the Irish players enjoyed the in-joke, the Macedonians complained of an insult. Lost in translation, the gag became a noose. Macedonia equals a crap day. It was something to be avenged.

The yellow shirt became infamous. How dare the Irish mock this great nation and this great team. "It will certainly give the game a certain edge for us," predicted Macedonia's Georgi Hristov before Ireland' second visit to Skopje. "I'm not insulted by it.

"In fact, we should be proud because it shows we must have needled them. I think it's quite funny."

With just seconds remaining in the match in '99, the wheels came off Ireland's wagon once again as the corner was taken and fullback Goran Staverevsks connected with the cross and the ball arrowed into the net.

Having had a rant with a Macedonian player in the tunnel before the match, Ireland manager Mick McCarthy was the sickest man in Europe as the goalscorer ran towards him giving him the fingers. Macedonia celebrated. The clock ticked on. The scoreline stayed the same.

"Who do I blame?" McCarthy asked. "No one really. It was one of those things. Goran Staverevsks was in the right place at the right time for Macedonia. There was nothing I could do in those final 12 seconds to change the path of history."

According to Mick it had been a game "we dominated but never killed."

Niall Quinn's assessment was brutal and honest. "All we had to do was clear one more corner and we were through. We were over the finishing line and in complete control of the game. They hadn't even been in our half. For some reason, panic set in. We were stupid. We capitulated."



Anxious

An anxious wait followed. We'd left the door open for either Croatia or Yugoslavia who were also playing that evening. Had Croatia won they'd have gone through and Yugoslavia would have been in the play-offs. Despite being down to 10 men, Yugoslavia held out for a 2-2 draw and we edged through to the play-offs along with England, Scotland, Denmark, Turkey, Slovakia, Ukraine and Israel.

"I told the players they have lost the battle but they can still win the war," recalls McCarthy. We didn't win McCarthy's war. Failing to match Turkey's away goal in Bursa saw Ireland as merely armchair participants in the European Championships.

"Macedonia haunts me," McCarthy admitted afterwards. "My other abiding memory of Macedonia is the feeling of guilt that followed me around for many months to come." As usual, there's more than bragging rights at stake when these countries meet.