Legends target Croatia at finals

Heroes of the Republic of Ireland’s opening games at Euro ’88 and Italia ’90 respectively, Packie Bonner and Kevin Sheedy know how crucial it is to hit the ground running at a major finals.

Keeper Bonner famously frustrated England in Ireland’s finals debut at our only other European Championships in Germany 24 years ago, when Ray Houghton’s early goal beat the auld enemy.

Sheedy’s sublime left foot netted a glorious late equaliser as Jack Charlton’s side then came from behind to draw 1-1 with England in Cagliari in Ireland’s World Cup opener two years later.

In all, Ireland have not lost an opening match in any of the four finals tournaments we’ve played in to date.

Houghton again hit a winner to beat Italy at Giants Stadium at USA ’94 while Matt Holland levelled to earn Mick McCarthy’s side a point against Cameroon in Japan in 2002.

Keeping that record intact against Croatia in Poland on June 10 is vital to Giovanni Trapattoni’s side progressing out of the group, say Bonner and Sheedy.

“Yeah, Croatia,” said Bonner. “I’d say in the last game against the Czech Republic that that might have been in Trapattoni’s mind, preparing the team for that game.

“I think it’s vital in any tournament [to start well]. I think if you ask any international manager, the first game, if you get a draw or win the game then you’re setting yourselves up for the rest of the games.

“Losing brings confidence down and it’s going to be difficult then in the other games in that group.

“But talking about the current European Championship finals, I’m really excited about it because of the games, much more than anything else.

“We could have been drawn in groups where it wouldn’t have been as high profile, but to get Italy and Spain.

“I was in Sweden the other week doing a thing for UEFA and the Italian goalkeepers were there, the coaches, and they were saying, ‘we’re very afraid of Ireland, very afraid because we think Trapattoni will have a plan, he will snare us’.

“That’s the feeling out in Italy.”

Sheedy added: “It’s a win-win situation because Croatia is the best game to have to start with.

“If we were to win our first game against Croatia, we’ve beaten Italy before....

“If we win great, if we don’t get beat it’s still a good result. Anything can happen, then the pressure’s on the other teams; the pressure’s on Spain, the pressure’s on Italy, they have to play each other so as long as you don’t lose your first game, you’re still right in the competition.”

* Packie Bonner and Kevin Sheedy were in Dublin yesterday to promote ESPN’s coverage of upcoming English Premier League and SPL games.


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