WEDNESDAY afternoon in Kashima, heat lies heavy in the air and the weight of anticipation pulses through the roads that lead to Ibaraki Stadium.
The players, meanwhile, are having lunch in preparation for one of the biggest nights of their lives. Steven Reid, a 21-year-old Millwall midfielder, presents a watch to Steve Staunton in recognition of the captain’s 100th appearance . If one is old enough to remember the heady years under Jack Charlton, the other is young enough to believe in their repetition. The generation gap does not divide them.
By kick-off, the team, the fans and their entourage have come together under one stylish roof in what feels like the middle of nowhere. While Germany remain impassive during the anthems, the Irish boys turn to their support in a gesture of unworthiness, puff out their chests and heave the contents of their lungs out into the night sky. Distance from home deepens the heart.
What was significant about Ireland’s momentous draw with Germany last week, and what will sustain them in Tuesday night’s decisive match against Saudi Arabia, was not so much the players’ achievement, or indeed the historic reputation of their opponents, but the collective resolve with which they responded to a setback for the second match in succession. The culmination of that was an uplifting climax heightened by the emotional residue of what had gone before.
If manager Mick McCarthy needed anything in these World Cup finals, where his decision to send home Roy Keane had divided the Irish support , it was a result to silence that sorry saga and offer the people something to believe in. No wonder he was jigging about with the rest of them at full-time. Even with a defeat of Saudi Arabia still required, the manager was determined to milk this for all it was worth.
He had earned the right to a little credit. Having fielded a sluggish team in the first half against Cameroon, his tactical adjustment during the interval transformed the match. A goal down to Germany with 17 minutes left, he risked playing three at the back and threw on substitute Niall Quinn. The striker, of 35 years and failing legs, responded by setting up Robbie Keane’s injury-time equaliser.
It was a moving night for McCarthy and the veteran striker. Both expended tears and sleepless nights in an effort to tease the apology from Keane that would have smoothed a path for his return. All to no avail. Without the players’ support, McCarthy could not have continued in his position. Quinn, who has seen the manager make long, slow progress since taking over in 1996, knows how cruel it would have been to see him robbed of success just when it seemed to be within reach.
"He’s got it right," says the striker. "Some people have been quick to criticise him over the years, but he has stood by his beliefs. Anyone who knows him will tell you that he has never wavered. He never changed things to suit other people. He just believes in what he believes in. You get a good kick out of somebody getting his rewards like that."
Traditional Irish music has been popular in Ibaraki since Lunasa, a group of young Gaelic artists, performed there in October. On Wednesday, they settled for lunacy. It was a memorable, cathartic climax that will probably propel them into the second phase. "Even the older players are still mesmerised by it all," says Quinn. "Our physio, a guy who thought he’d seen everything, looked as though he was going to have a heart attack in the dressing-room. We thought we’d need a stretcher to get him out. I’ve never known anything like it."
That’s saying something. Quinn, who was told in February that he might be needed for the odd late shift, could not have anticipated a reprise of those dreamlike days against Romania in 1990 and Italy four years later. "I’ve recounted lots of stories down the years, but this latest one has blown them all away. It’s absolutely incredible to be so far away from home against one of the top nations in the world, and see support like that. I’d give anything to be Damien Duff’s age."
Duff, at 23, is the Blackburn Rovers striker whose tireless ability to retain possession will be a fundamental feature of Ireland’s future. Fulham defender Steve Finnan has been noted by Sir Alex Ferguson, while the midfield partnership of Mark Kinsella and Matt Holland have done better than expected in Keane’s domain.
"We’re just a good team," says McCarthy. "It’s too easy to say we’ve grown over the last two weeks. We got to the World Cup by knocking Holland out. We finished with the same points as Portugal. Everyone is always looking for a reason why. But we’ve been doing it for the last two years. It hasn’t just happened overnight. This has been nurtured for a long, long time."
Ireland have not lost a competitive match since September 1999, when they were beaten in a Euro 2000 qualifier by Croatia. That refusal to contemplate failure has been strengthened in Japan, where the players issued a statement in support of McCarthy and responded to Keane’s absence with the kind of fire that even the manager must have doubted was possible. "They play for themselves," he says. "They’re a close-knit bunch. They play for each other, and if I’m part of that, which I think I am, in fact I know I am, it’s nice."
McCarthy, who admits the finals were no fun until the football started, is doing all in his power to keep everyone pulling in the same direction. In the dressing-room after the Germany match, he took the substitutes aside and expressed sympathy that there had been no place for them on a historic night. "I just wanted to thank them publicly. Everyone else gave them a round of applause. Without the lads we’re nothing. You’re only as strong as the players who don’t play."
There is still a job to be done. Victory on Tuesday night in Yokohama will be no formality against a team who topped Iran’s qualifying group - the same Iran who frightened Ireland in the play-offs - and emerged from the qualifiers with more goals than any country. Anything so slender as a 1-0 victory could leave McCarthy’s side drawing lots with Cameroon, if the latter were to share two goals with Germany. "We will be hoping to score first for a change," says Quinn. "It’s good that we’re finishing strongly, but going ahead could make a big difference. We could build on that."
A group of around 150 Irishmen among thousands here have taken a four-hour crash course in etiquette and language at the behest of Dublin firm World Cup Wanderers. The aim was to teach them a hybrid of English and Japanese, including key words such as doko (where) and konnichiwa (hello), while encouraging addition of vowels, so that words such as supermarket become supamaketo.
Like the team they have travelled to watch, the Irish know how to make a little go a long way.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east