Light at end of the tunnel for Ireland

IRELAND seem sure of a chilly welcome weatherwise in Georgia this week but a much warmer one from the local fans.

Overnight snow in Tbilisi on Monday suggested playing conditions will be heavy, but the influence of the ESB and the Special Olympics is sure to brighten the atmosphere.

ESB International currently have a team of ten experts in Georgia where they are directing a local staff of 4,500 operatives in restoring and upgrading the electricity system.

ESB International have established a generous fund of goodwill towards Ireland by sponsoring the Georgia team who will travel to Ireland for the Special Olympics. Those athletes will be presented to the fans before the kick-off to Saturday's European Championship qualifier in Tbilisi.

It is certain, of course, that the goodwill shown towards Ireland's players will not be extended to the pitch and manager Brian Kerr yesterday left nobody in any doubt as to what is expected.

"Georgia have a big, strong, physical team," he said, "I've spoken to Ian Evans who saw Georgia in the match against Russia (which was abandoned due to floodlight failure) and they have players who are confident on the ball, who like to tackle and get stuck in."

Tbilisi and Georgia are not unknown to Kerr who travelled there with an Irish team that competed in the World Cup for U20 players in 1985. The manager was Liam Tuohy and Kerr was his assistant with Noel O'Reilly as assistant coach. It was Ireland's first time qualifying for a major competitions final. Kerr recalled that experience yesterday: "I remember well how proud Georgia were and how positive they were that they were not Russian. They explained they were part of the USSR at that time but only under duress.

"They were very proud of their football traditions and the achievements of their top club, Dynamo Tbilisi. Their football style is a balance of good individual, technical players and physical strength and organisation."

Kerr maintained a brave face after yesterday's training session at Portmarnock where Ireland began their build-up to the matches against Georgia and Albania with a squad hit by many defections because of injuries.

He admitted the death of Robbie Keane's father had hit the squad hard. It is possible that Keane will want to follow the Irish squad to Georgia on Friday but it is inevitable that the Irish players' thoughts will be with the young Spurs striker and his grieving family. The funeral will take place while Ireland are flying to Georgia tomorrow morning.

Kerr, understandably, declined to even speculate on the possibility of Keane taking any part in the upcoming matches. "I spoke to Robbie on the phone and passed on everybody's sympathy. I told him to go away and do what he had to do and I don't think it is appropriate for me to say any more than that."

The new manager is well recognised as a football pragmatist and his uncluttered thinking on the game was very evident as he took his first major conference before his first competitive international at senior level. What also came through was his legendary attention to detail and his thorough preparation. He built into yesterday's programme of exercise a session in the swimming pool, for instance.

He said: "The first session is always an exercise in seeing who is carrying injuries, who is running freely, and the visit to the swimming pool was a recovery session that some of the players may be familiar with."

The working sessions revealed good and bad news for while John O'Shea took a full part in training and is obviously fit, Steve Finnan and Steven Reid are on their way back to their clubs, and out of Saturday's game.

Kerr already has to plan without Gary Kelly, Jason McAteer, Clinton Morrison, Rory Delap and Ian Harte and will be waiting for confirmation that David Connolly will be fit to join the squad after playing last night for Wimbledon.

As ever, however, Kerr turned an optimistic face towards his problems. "We are not so different to when we played Scotland in the friendly in February. I'm not too worried once the balance of cover is alright all around the pitch, once we've options for every position. I am satisfied we will be able to put out a strong side."

Ireland lost their opening two matches in the European Championship away to Russia and at home to Switzerland so Kerr has little room for manoeuvre if Ireland are to challenge for a place in the finals in Portugal next year.

"We need points from our games against Georgia and Albania. We have six games to go and before we played in this competition people looked at these two matches and said they could be difficult. They are looking more difficult now."

Kerr's upbeat approach to football has helped him work wonders with Ireland's under-age teams and at club level with St. Patrick's Athletic. True to form he did not shy away when asked to evaluate the task that lies ahead.

He said: "I love the challenge that comes with every football match, on a personal level it stimulates me. Knowing that we are going to two of the most difficult countries in Europe to face two tough teams makes me want to produce results and that is the way I want the players to feel as well."

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