Republic of Ireland defender Stephen Kelly is expecting World Cup fever to grip his country as he and his team-mates attempt to book their passage to South Africa next month.
The 26-year-old Fulham full-back was a teenager the last time the Irish made it to the finals of a major tournament, the 2002 World Cup in the Far East, and still remembers the way the nation was gripped by their American adventure in 1994.
He is expecting the fans to turn out en masse at Croke Park to witness what could be a thrilling finale to their latest qualifying campaign.
The Republic host reigning champions Italy on October 10 and then Montenegro four days later – knowing they could yet clinch the one automatic spot in Group Eight, or alternatively, that a place in the play-offs is well within their grasp.
Kelly said: “Everybody knows what’s at stake. We are two games away from the World Cup, and I am sure the fans will be out in force.
“Everybody knows what it is like to get to a World Cup. We were all supporters when we were younger, and the whole country just goes crazy.
“I am sure people are going to be there to support us and hope they push us through as a 12th man at Croke Park.”
Giovanni Trapattoni and his players have enjoyed a profitable past week.
Saturday’s 2-1 qualifier victory in Cyprus maintained their charge in the group, and it was followed by a second success – last night’s friendly win over World Cup hosts South Africa in Limerick.
Trapattoni allowed many of his senior men to return to their clubs after their exertions in Nicosia and made eight changes at Thomond Park.
His new-look side struggled at times before the break, but it was they who took the lead through Liam Lawrence’s classy 37th-minute free-kick – and they managed to hold on in an increasingly confident display.
The performance and result served as justification of Trapattoni’s mission to establish a mentality and organisation throughout the squad.
Kelly, like Lawrence, was one of the beneficiaries last night – and all the understudies are hoping to have caught the manager’s eye.
The full-back said: “When you get opportunities to play in these games you want to go and make an impression in front of the manager – so that when you do get a chance to play, he is going to be thinking of you.
“It was a good performance for everybody – the whole team played well. We kept a clean sheet and we got the goal.”
Captain-for-the-night Kevin Doyle admitted South Africa had presented Ireland with a different challenge, but one which will serve them well if they make it to next summer’s finals.
He said: “I don’t think we will come up against a team as fluid as they were tonight again. That’s as fluid as I have played against.
“We watched videos of them and we knew that was going to be the way – it was all one-touch around corners, one-twos, lads ending up anywhere, and it was difficult.
“But you can’t sit back and let them do it, as we learnt; you can’t let them get too many clear-cut chances.
“We learnt as the game went on that we could deal with them and create something of our own.”