Former Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy has revealed that the memory of guiding the country to the World Cup finals still burns as brightly as the fires that illuminated the night sky in Tehran following their triumph in Iran.
On the eve of Ireland’s World Cup play-off first leg against Denmark, McCarthy has reflected on the “bizarre” events in the Iranian capital when Ireland earned their place at the 2002 finals.
The Republic of Ireland earned a place in the World Cup finals in after home and away matches against Iran. Ireland emerged triumphant with a 2-1 aggregate win.
The team, playing without captain Roy Keane, was defending a 2-0 first-leg lead in front of an estimated crowd of 120,000 people at the Azadi stadium in Tehran.
The game in Iran was scoreless until a header from Iranian Yahya Golmohammadi finally beat Shay Given in the last minute but Ireland held out for a 2-1 aggregate win.
McCarthy recalled: “It was bizarre. I went in there beforehand to see a game before we played. There were no ladies in the stadium and it was a wide open stadium.
“They had a prayer before the game with huge speakers which boomed it out.
“They are all baritones as they are all fellows and they all responded to this prayer. Something was shouted out and I have no idea what it was to this day.
“It was almost saying amen, amen but obviously, it wasn’t that. There was a response. It was incredible.
“They had this prayer and then there was the national anthem.
“I told the lads what would happen so as to give them some idea of the atmosphere.
“I always remember Taff (Ian Evans) took the players out on to the pitch before the game.
“The Iranian fans had been in the ground for hours beforehand. The fans were going bonkers. Absolutely bonkers. So when we went out and I told the lads they would have this prayer.
‘When you are lining they will have this prayer booming out of these huge speakers. When they have this prayer it will not be the national anthem when that is finished the national anthems will come.’
“So we went out and the atmosphere was amazing and they had this prayer.
As it finished all the lads started running off and we had to get them back (for the anthem).
“I’ve never experienced anything like it before. It was hostile but I never felt threatened by it.
“They were throwing things at the dug-out.
“I walked out once and there were all sorts being thrown.
“They wanted to win and it was an unbelievable atmosphere. It was a lottery but towards the end people were leaving because we were winning.
“They set fire to newspapers and programmes and there were fires all over the terraces. It was surreal. It was amazing.
“We went into the dressing and were celebrating together but there wasn’t a bottle of beer or a bottle champagne anywhere.
“The first time there was any sign of a celebratory drink was an hour into the flight because we couldn’t drink in their air space.
“We were on a jumbo jet full of Irishmen and women and no one had had a drink.
“Earlier it had been bizarre in the airport. Normally, all these people dressed up in green and white and all these leprechauns would have been celebrating and the atmosphere would be great as if we at a party. It was the most civilised occasion.
“We just sat around saying well done and having photographs. Then we got on the plane and they asked me to open the first bottle of champagne. It was a nice moment.”
World Cup 2002, Second Leg play-off teams:
IRAN: Ebrahim Mirzapour; Rahman Rezaei, Afshin Peyrovani, Yahya Golmohammadi; Karim Bagheri, Hamed Kavianpour, Mehdi Mahdavikia, Mehrdad Minavand, Alireza Vahedi Nikbakht, Ali Karimi; Ali Daei.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Shay Given; Steve Finnan, Gary Breen, Steve Staunton, Ian Harte; Jason McAteer, Mark Kinsella, Matt Holland, Kevin Kilbane (Gary Kelly 82); David Connolly, Robbie Keane (Clinton Morrison 76).
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