RED ALERT: Ireland’s Jason McAteer was sent off following this challenge on Macedonia’s Artim Sakiri during the World Cup qualifier in Skopje in 1997. Picture: James Meehan/INPHO
It was on this day, 23 years ago, that Irish football “had a Macedonia”, giving birth to the ‘worst trainer’ bib that, for a long time in the international camp, would act as an embarrassing reminder of where hubris can take you.
The 1998 World Cup campaign was Mick McCarthy’s first in charge as manager after taking over from Jack Charlton, and his team had three qualifiers under their belts before their trip to Skopje on April 2, 1997, beating Liechtenstein away 5-0 and Macedonia at home 3-0, before momentum stalled when they were held to a disappointing scoreless draw by Iceland in Dublin.
But even with that November freeze-out still all too fresh in the mind, not many were anticipating another
setback in the spring against a team perceived as eminently beatable opponents.
Certainly, as far as Mick McCarthy was concerned, the optimum approach was for his team to seize the initiative against Macedonia from the off.
“It is stating the obvious to say we must set out to score to try and sicken them,” he said.
“A goal for us will have a bigger effect on them than a goal for them will have and we must take the game to them.”
And once the Irish supporters in an attendance of 7,000 had gotten over the shock of seeing the boys who used to be in green run out in an eye-watering new away strip — a lurid orange shirt over black shorts ensemble which an Umbro spokesman on the Pat Kenny Show described as “a fashion statement” — it did look for a while as if their team were fully primed to put ample flesh on the manager’s words
Beginning as though determined to emulate the U21s, who had trounced the hosts 4-0 the previous day, Ireland got off to the proverbial flyer, Alan McLoughlin converting with a lunging header after just eight minutes.
But, incredibly, that would be the premature high point of the whole game for the visitors who, from that point on, would proceed to lose their way spectacularly.
Two penalty decisions went against Ireland, both for handball, the first an unintentional but unignorable one by Jason McAteer, the second as Terry Phelan attempted to protect his face.
Mitko Stojkovski made no mistake with the spot-kicks, turning the game on its head and sending the Irish into the dressing room 2-1 behind at half-time.
Then things went from bad to worse in the 60th minute when Georgi Hristov scored with an exceptional strike and, though David Kelly pulled one back for Ireland, their sole remaining contribution of note was entirely in keeping with an occasion of footballing infamy — an injury-time red card for Jason McAteer.
The man they called Trigger loudly protested his innocence afterwards.
“I can’t believe the ref sent me off,” he said.
“The lad stood on my foot and when I turned to him he rested his head on mine. Then Roy (Keane) came charging in and pushed him away.
At first I thought it was Roy who’d been shown the red card. The ref must have thought I used my head on the player but I didn’t. I was gutted.
"I was trying to be a Gary Lineker but I’ve no chance now.”
All of which might have elicited a good deal more sympathy had the evidence not shown — particularly in wince-inducing TV slow motion replays — that, prior to his head to head with the enraged penalty-king Stojkovsi (who was also sent off), McAteer had almost decapitated Artim Sakiri with a reckless high boot to the base of the player’s throat.
Needless to say, when the match reviews came in, unlike Ireland’s shirts they weren’t glowing.
The Examiner attempted to soften the blow a tad with an alliterative headline: ‘McCarthy in Mourning After Macedonian Muddle’. (For the record, the Indo went with the rather more pithy ‘Mick’s Macedonkies’).
But in his report in this paper, Billy George didn’t pull his punches.
“This was not so much a defeat as a humiliation,” he wrote.
“Ireland’s fall from grace was as complete as it was spectacular and totally without reason for mitigation. It was a devastating experience, chilling to the core, to witness Ireland’s collapse in the most unexpected and unpredictable circumstances.”
He also noted that Mick McCarthy’s hopes of “sickening” the opposition had entirely backfired.
“Instead, the goal proved more a hindrance than a help for it had a negative influence on the Irish side and fostered feelings of superiority that were as misplaced as they were expensive.”
The manager himself was left struggling to make sense of what he had witnessed.
“Our passing and movement were not up to standard and, hand on heart, you could not say anybody played up to their best,” said McCarthy.
“It’s a huge blow to our World Cup hopes. I said before the game that if we played our best we would win.
“My head’s on the line after that statement but, to be honest, we didn’t play anywhere near as well as we can.
"We had a perfect start but for some reason we stopped playing after going a goal up in eight minutes. We defended a 1-0 and, at that stage, that was ridiculous.”
This was a theme taken up by the man who’d given Ireland their early lead.
“We scored with a move we had worked on in training,” said McLoughlin, “getting the ball wide and looking for Cas to knock it down for runners from midfield.
"It was the perfect start and I felt we could kill them off then. But we took our foot off the pedal, I don’t know why, and we got punished.
Instead of going forward we fell into the trap of thinking it was easy. And we got our backsides kicked.
While McCarthy’s 3-5-2 formation came in for criticism, writing in his newspaper column the following day, former Ireland international Kevin Moran was in no doubt that it was the players who were primarily responsible what for he called “a terrible performance”.
“A disastrous result,” he declared. “No matter how you try, you can’t really hide from the reality of yesterday’s defeat in Macedonia.
“I know you can argue the fight for World Cup qualification isn’t over until it’s mathematically impossible but, if we put up this kind of performance in Bucharest four weeks from now — IT IS OVER.”
But even though the Irish would lose 1-0 to eventual group winners Romania in the next match, they did manage to extend their interest beyond regulation qualifying, a second-place finish earning them a two-legged play off against Belgium.
However, a 1-1 draw in Dublin followed by a 2-1 defeat in Brussels meant it really was all over now, leaving McCarthy and his squad to look on from afar as France partied on home soil the following summer.
Yet, though the 3-2 defeat in Skopje on April 2 1997 is a game which has gone on to secure its place in Irish football’s all-time roll of dishonour, it was another fateful encounter with Macedonia which would really come to haunt Mick McCarthy for years to come.
That was the 1-1 draw in Skopje in 1999 when, on the very brink of automatic qualification for Euro 2000, his team were sucker-punched by a last minute Goran Stavrevksi equaliser, sending Ireland into yet another play-off, this time against Turkey, which they would lose on away goals.
As recently as 2017, when he was still manager of Ipswich, McCarthy confessed: “It is the one result that sticks in my craw. Because we should have been in the European Championships.
"That would have been great, with a World Cup. Oh yeah, that hurts still. Even thinking about it now.”