Whelan: i'm still pinching myself
France won't faze midfielder despite rapid rise up ranks
TIME flies when you're Glenn Whelan. It's September 2001, you're sitting in the stand at Lansdowne Road to watch Jason McAteer's goal knock Holland out of the World Cup, a scarf around your neck as an ordinary punter, a kid of 17.
It's now October 2004, you're at the Stade de France in Paris, part of the 78,000 crowd watching Brian Kerr's Ireland draw with France. Still with a seat in the stand but by now, the scarf is gone and you're wearing an official FAI tracksuit, a member of the Ireland U21 squad which had played -- and lost to -- a France side containing future stars like Franck Ribery 24 hours earlier.
November 2009, it's Ireland v France at Croke Park. And you are a key player in the drama that will unfold over the next 90 minutes, Whelan's name one of the first on the team-sheet when Giovanni Trapattoni starts his scribbling.
There are pluses and minuses in Whelan's mind as he continues his preparations in Dublin to face the French.
The positive is that he missed last month's draw with Montenegro -- he was suspended for a game he would have been injured for anyway -- and thus cleared his yellow card from the slate, so Whelan could pick up another yellow in the home leg against France and still be
cleared to play in Paris. The negative is that he lost his record of having played in every minute of every competitive game under Trapattoni, as he came off 20 minutes from the end of the home draw with Italy with a calf injury and then sat out the Montenegro game.
"For someone like me, every game and every cap is precious so I was gutted to miss the Montenegro game, and lose that record of having started and finished all of the qualifiers," Whelan told the Herald.
"So I just hope and pray that I can get back into the side for the next two games. Ever since I started playing football, as a kid back in Dublin, these are the games you dream about, France v Ireland in the World Cup. Saturday will be the biggest game of my career and one of the biggest nights of my life.
"To be honest I am still pinching myself sometimes, to see am I really here. I think back to where I was 18 months, two years ago. I was playing for Sheffield Wednesday in places like Rotherham and Norwich. Playing for Ireland was, of course, an ambition, that's why you go away and go for trials with the U14s in Dublin and go off around the world playing for the youths and U21s, to get the chance to play for the senior team and win a cap.
"Even two years ago, playing for Ireland seemed to be a long way away for me, and if you had offered me then what I have now, a chance to play against France in a World Cup play-off in front of 80,000 people at Croke Park, I'd have bitten your hand off.
"I know that lads like Shay Given, Robbie Keane and Damien Duff have been to the World Cup before but for most of us in this squad, these matches against France are the biggest games of our careers so far.
"There is so much at stake, for the players as individuals, for Irish football and for the country as a whole. It's a massive, massive challenge for us, France have some of the best players in the world in their squad, but we're not afraid of what's ahead of us. As a kid these are the games you dream of playing in: France at home with a place in the World Cup finals to play for; the chance to go to the World Cup and knock France out of it.
"I still remember the Holland game in 2001, where we beat them 1-0 at Lansdowne Road. I think for lads of my age that's the game and the goal that sticks out when you look back.
"Now we -- this team and this squad -- have a chance to do it for ourselves, to make our own bit of history and we don't intend to let anyone down.
"We really do fancy our chances against anyone. I certainly don't think we will freeze because of the occasion. We have played Italy and Bulgaria home and away and didn't freeze then. We were unbeaten in the group in the World Cup and not many teams can say that," added Whelan.
Training only started for real on Tuesday afternoon, but this week Whelan did take time out to recall some of the clashes with world-class players that have steeled him for the battle ahead -- when the Irish boys from Stoke, Hull and Wolves go head to head with the elite from Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Back in early 2002, when Mick McCarthy's senior team were preparing for the World Cup finals, Whelan was a member of Brian Kerr's U19 team that beat Holland 2-1 in Rotterdam and then drew 0-0 at home in the second leg to earn a place in the European Championship finals. Holland had Klaas Jan Huntelaar, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben, but the Irish side won out, even though only three of that Ireland team went on to win senior caps (Whelan, Stephen Kelly and Stephen Elliott).
And there was that U21 game away to France five years ago, when a goal six minutes from time saw France defeat Whelan's Ireland team 1-0 in Troyes.
"I remember that game. A few of the current French team played against us that day," Whelan recalls. "I remember Ribery as there was a bit of talk about him at the time as a special player, but they also had Clichy and Toulalan, who might play against us in the play-offs as well.
"It's funny, but the one game I really remember was an U16 international against Spain, I think it was back in 2000.
"They beat us 2-0 in a qualifier we played out in Latvia -- that Spanish side were world class. I think they went on to win the U16 European title that year and Torres was the big player for them, but when they played us and beat us, I remember Iniesta was the key man, even back then he stood out to all of us. It's funny to look back now and see him as one of the best players in the world."
He also sees Ireland's last game in Paris as a good omen. "I was in the Stade de France that night five years ago when we drew 0-0, and we nearly beat them that night," says Whelan.
"I was nowhere near the squad then. I was in Paris with the U21s as we had played the French U21s the night before, but I remember the game well, we had chances to win it. One big plus for that night was the Irish support -- we had around 25,000 or 30,000 Irish fans in Paris and we'll have a good support again next week."
For Whelan, the approach literally is one game at a time. "Of course, the play-off is over two legs but, for this week, I am only thinking about Saturday's game. The game in Paris will look after itself next week.
"The whole approach could change for Paris, we could be going there just needing to keep a clean sheet to go through. We may be going there looking for goals, we won't know until after the final whistle on Saturday night, so Paris will take care of itself.
"We can't even think about the yellow cards, and I don't think any of the lads who are on one booking will have that card on their minds on Saturday.
"I suppose it worked out well for me on that front as I was suspended for the Montenegro game but couldn't have played anyway because I picked up a calf injury.
"A few more lads are on one yellow card now, but there's no point in holding yourself back for the second leg if we are a goal or two down for that second leg. We'll get Saturday out of the way and see what happens in Paris," added Whelan.
One of Trapattoni's favoured words to describe top-class players is famous (pronounced 'fam-oose' in Trappish) and even Whelan admits that the French, with all their players from top clubs in Spain and England, win the battle of the famoose.
"We're honest enough to admit that they have bigger names than us," says Whelan. "Irish fans know all about Henry and Anelka, the French supporters may not know all of the lads in our squad.
"But that doesn't bother us. It's still only 11 men against 11 men. France have some of the big stars of world football but they are still human, they are still beatable. If France were world beaters they would have qualified already and wouldn't be in the play-offs.
"Reputations won't count for much when the whistle blows on Saturday night. If Ireland or France are to go to the World Cup then they'll have to earn their place, and we are keen to earn the right to be there."