NO-ONE wearing a green shirt emerged smelling of roses the last time Ireland played in Nicosia but if there is one player with more reason than most to wince at the painful memories of that night, it has to be Richard Dunne.
True, Aston Villa’s new recruit did get on the score sheet in October 2006, levelling the tie at 2-2 coming up to half-time but, thereafter, it was downhill all the way as a humiliating experience culminated in the defender’s dismissal for a second bookable offence just two minutes after the Cypriots had scored their fifth goal.
It was, the big centre-half admits now, as bad a night as he has ever experienced on a football pitch, a “terrible” 90 minutes when, “whatever could go wrong, did go wrong”.
Dunne is the only member of the current squad to have played in the GSP stadium since then — for Manchester City against AC Omonia in a UEFA Cup game last year — and confesses he is glad to have that first back-to-the-scene-of-the-crime experience out of the way. But he still expects some déjà vu before kick-off tonight.
“When the match and the whole setting is ready to go, there’ll probably be flashbacks about what happened and hopefully that will make us all stronger,” he says. “There’s enough players in the side who played that night that were embarrassed by it. And once the game gets going, it’s up to us to put our foot on it and stay on it.
“That game happened and it’s terrible because you live with it for the rest of the life. But it’s out of the way now and for us tonight — while it’d be nice to go out there and win 5-0 or something — it’ll be enough to just leave with the three points.”
While Dunne, of all people, needs no reminding that the last campaign was riddled with red and yellow cards and suspensions for the Irish, he is also keenly aware that the current World Cup bid has seen the team establish the best disciplinary record in Group Eight.
And the Tallaght man suggests that’s down to Giovanni Trapattoni.
“It’s not where he’s said be careful about what we’re doing tackles-wise,” Dunne explains. “I just think that it’s because of who he is and the way he is. I just think there’s a lot more respect and maybe discipline among the group in the hotels and stuff, and that has carried itself out onto the pitch. But there’s no talk before games that we can’t take yellow cards — sometimes you need to take a yellow card because it’s the right thing to do when the occasion comes up.”
While Ireland have hardly been scintillating in the group so far, they have done enough to grind out the results which have kept them firmly in contention for qualification for South Africa.
“I think teams are finding that we’re a lot more difficult to beat,” Dunne observes. “We’re not a team that can go and score maybe four or five goals so we have to be strong somewhere. We’re always capable of nicking a goal, one or two, but throughout the groups — and for a long time — we haven’t been a team that hammered people.
“So we need to have a strong defensive record and I think, from that point of view, having the two central midfielders sitting a lot more has definitely helped.”
And despite criticism that this represents an overly defensive strategy on the part of Trapattoni, Dunne believes the manager has adopted the right approach — in short, one that’s best geared to the goal of qualification for the World Cup finals.
“I think so. People say that we could be more positive, that we can beat these teams — although we’ve already beaten a few of them and we’re unbeaten in the group. I know there’s been some criticism of the style of play, but there’s no point in us trying to play nice football all the time and getting the same results that we’ve been getting for the last few years and not getting near to qualification.
“For this campaign it’s about Ireland getting to a World Cup. Maybe in future times when Ireland are at World Cups more regularly, we can concentrate on being more of an attractive team. For now, it’s more about determination to get there and I think that’s what’s been reflected in our play. That determination to go and get results.”
That said, Dunne agrees that, traditionally, Ireland have reserved their best performances for the bigger tests while sometimes struggling to put away countries seeded below them.
“Yeah, if you look back on results it’s probably been that way and that’s what we have to get over. We have to treat every game like we’re playing the world champions and when we’re not, we should beat them more comfortably. That’s the attitude we have to have against Cyprus — that they are trying to stop us going to the World Cup and we’re the team with the most Premier League players so we should be strong enough in every department to win the game.”
And that self-belief, suggests Dunne, can and should translate into a more positive demeanour on the field of play on those occasions when Ireland get their noses in front.
“The not losing mentality is definitely there,” he reflects. “There were opportunities against Bulgaria when we could have changed the way we thought about the game — it’s happened a couple of times in the group where we score and drop back and defend what we’ve got. That’s not the manager telling us to do it. It’s probably us just not wanting to lose games. We have to, when we get a goal, have the confidence to go and get another goal. That way it would make games a lot easier.
“I think in the Italian game we showed that that’s the way we should play, really. We constantly went and went and went and we were unfortunate not to get the winner in the end.
“Okay, they were down to 10 men but we completely dominated that game. And we should take a lot of confidence from that.”
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