The headline might be somewhat controversial. Yes, the Republic of Ireland beat (then) world champions Germany en route to qualifying for UEFA Euro 2016 and beat Italy at Euro 2016. However, Germany had all but mathematically qualified for the 2016 European Championships and Italy had qualified for the knockout stages of Euro 2016 before a ball was kicked that night in Lille in June 2016 when Robbie Brady’s header proved to be the difference between the teams.
Therefore, those two victories come with two major asterisks beside them, as, how can a victory over a team be truly great unless the team you beat also has something meaningful to play for?
That’s why, September 1st 2001, is the last truly great win for the Republic of Ireland senior international football team in my opinion. On that famous day at Lansdowne Road, everything was on the line. Defeat for either Ireland or the Netherlands that day in Dublin would mean elimination from qualification for the following summer’s World Cup so the stakes could not have been higher that Saturday afternoon in Ballsbridge.
The Dutch were justifiably almost unbackable favorites going into the game. They were priced at 1/3 to win and the handicap betting of -2 goals in favor of the Dutch was priced at Evens.
It was a sensational Dutch team, from back to front littered with household names and world class operators, from goalkeeper Van Der Sar, through to the central defensive partnership of Stam and Melchiot, midfield of Cocu and the enforcer Van Bommel and the huge attacking threat including Kluivert and Van Nistelrooy with Barcelona winger Marc Overmars arguably the star man of a star studded Dutch squad.
It was going to take a truly epic performance for Ireland to get anything from this match and the match started with a thumping tackle from Ireland enforcer/captain Roy Keane on Overmars within 50 seconds of kick-off.
It was to be a performance for the ages from Keane, time-after-time lifting the siege of an at times beleaguered rearguard.
The home side would survive some huge let-offs with Kluivert in particular guilty of glaring misses when clean through on Shay Given’s goal (twice) and seemingly certain to score in the first-half.
Gary Kelly being sent off after 58 minutes seemed to be a pivotal turning point. It was apparently an all-out backs to the wall rearguard action after that as striker Robbie Keane would make way to be replaced by right-back Steve Finnan.
A second apparent turning point came three minutes later when it seemed certain referee Hellmut Krug would award a penalty to the Dutch and reduce Ireland to nine men when Given took out Van Nistelrooy just inside the Irish box when the Dutchman seemed certain to score a tap-in. A corner-kick was awarded instead, from which the Dutch created nothing.
Remarkably though, the home side took the lead almost right on the midpoint of the second-half, which was to be the third and final real turning point of the game. It’s a goal so famous in Irish football folklore that it hardly needs to be described here, aside from goalscorer Jason McAteer saying afterwards: “I would likely have gotten that sort of ball, in that position, ten times in a row and never have hit the target again.”
Steve Staunton: “I was just so exhausted. When the goal went in, I knew I had to conserve my energy so I didn’t run the 45-50 yards to go to celebrate with the lads.”
From then on, it was wave of orange against a wall of green, but the Dutch panicked in the last 15 minutes or so, employing a 4-2-4 formation and pumping the ball into the Irish penalty-area, balls which were manfully repelled.
The final whistle signaled bedlam at the old ground with Shay Given not the only Irish player to state afterwards: “That was definitely the best atmosphere I’ve ever played in.”
Mick McCarthy speaking after the game gushed: “You can keep your Zidanes, Rauls, Figos and Ronaldos, I’d have Roy Keane in my team ahead of any of them, seven days a week.”
Goalscorer Jason McAteer: “My only regret about the day is that I didn’t accept an invitation from U2’s manager to appear on stage at the U2 concert at Slane Castle that night.”
Bono, on stage at Slane Castle that night, would of course sporadically reference the match during the band’s set, referring to “Beautiful Goal” while singing “Beautiful Day” and also wrapping himself in the Irish tricolor before proclaiming: “Close your eyes and imagine – IT’S JASON MCATEER!!”
The fact of the matter is that that famous result would not have been achieved were it not for a remarkable performance from Roy Keane. Time after time the Corkman won tackles all over the pitch, took the ball on surging 30-40 yard runs out of defense to alleviate pressure and of course went on the barnstorming run which fed Damien Duff who played in Steve Finnan who crossed to McAteer for the Liverpudlian to finish to the net.
Niall Quinn: “In the dressing-room immediately after the match Roy Keane was giving someone a bollocking for a mistake they’d made after 50 minutes. We were all wondering: ‘What are you on about?’ That was typical Roy though.”
Ian Harte: “Most of us in the squad were quite young and hadn’t been to the World before. Steve, Niall, Jason and Roy had been to the World Cup in 1990 or ’94 and that win over the Netherlands in 2001 was special for them too but it was just incredible for the rest of us.”
18 years on, the Republic of Ireland senior international football team has experienced numerous highs and lows, considerably more lows than highs if truth be told. The nation has failed to qualify for the World Cup in the intervening near two decades and has qualified for two hugely inflated (24 nation) European Championships, so the significance of qualifying for that continental tournament has been diluted (as well as nations – including Ireland in 2016 – who finish third out of four teams in the group stages qualifying for the knockout stages of the Euro means that achievements in the earlier stages of that continental tournament also need to be taken somewhat with a pinch of salt).
The Republic of Ireland has of course had some great victories since September 1st, 2001, the 0-1 win in Paris in normal-time over France in 2009 (The Hand of Thierry Henry game) being probably the best performance/result of the lot. Les Bleus‘ very poor showing at that following summer’s World Cup (taking just one point and scoring just once in three matches in what was far from a “Group of Death”), indicates for me that the Dutch team of 2001 was considerably stronger than the French team of 2009/’10 – albeit there was of course mutiny in the French ranks in the summer of 2010.
The Republic of Ireland beating Wales 1-0 in Cardiff in 2017 in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup is also a notable win, albeit it was a Welsh team shorn of talisman Gareth Bale. Beating Edin Dzeko’s Bosnia is also possibly worth a mention as is beating Austria 1-0 in Vienna in 2016.
There have also been some great draws, the 1-1 draw versus Germany at the 2002 World Cup being, for me, the best, especially considering that Die Mannschaft would go on to reach that World Cup final and only concede to Brazil’s Ronaldo aside from Robbie Keane for the duration of that tournament. Ireland’s 0-0 draw in Paris versus France in October 2004 was also an impressive performance.
The win over Netherlands on September 1st, 2001 however, is for me, the best Irish result of the last 18 years and more so, possibly the best Irish result of my lifetime, considering the quality of the opposition and what was at stake on the day. It’ll take something very special indeed to match or exceed it.