Ipswich Town World Cup stories: How the luck of the Irish deserted Matt Holland and Mick McCarthy

Matt Holland

Matt Holland - Credit: PA

The World Cup is full of ‘what if’ tales and Republic of Ireland wrote their own chapter during a tulmultous campaign in Japan and South Korea.

After Roy Keane’s much-publicised spat with then-manager Mick McCarthy, which saw Ireland’s best player fly home without kicking a ball, the team were then a penalty shoot-out away from defeating Spain and reaching the quarter-finals.

Such a scenario seems a little far-fetched these days, given the progress Spain have made over the last decade, but it was a very real possibility as time wore on in Suwon.

Chances are Ireland would have been up against it against South Korea in the quarter-finals, given the backing the hosts had from a fanatical home support that certainly contributed to their victories against Italy in the last-16 and Spain in the quarter-finals.

Former Ipswich Town midfielder Matt Holland, who missed a penalty in that shoot-out defeat to Jose Antonio Camacho’s team, will never know what may have happened, but explained how he and his team-mates – minus their talisman – could take great heart from their Asian adventure.

“We more than matched them (Spain) and I thought over the course of 90 minutes we were probably better than them,” recalls Holland, who won 49 caps for his country, scoring five goals, including one in the first group game against Cameroon.

“We missed a penalty in normal time (through Ian Harte) before Robbie (Keane) scored from the spot in the final minute.

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“Once the game went into extra-time I thought it was going to be us that went through but unfortunately it wasn’t to be and I look back on it with a sense of what might have been.”

Holland was certainly within his rights to think that, with McCarthy’s team having finished second above The Netherlands and just behind group winners Portugal, on goal difference, in qualifying.

They eventually got through a play-off game against Iran to reach Japan and South Korea and went on to draw 1-1 with Cameroon and Germany, before beating Saudi Arabia 3-0 to seal their progress to the last-16.

“Not many people gave us a chance to qualify as we were up against Portugal and The Netherlands but we had the likes of Roy Keane in midfield, plus some good young players like Damien Duff, Robbie Keane and an established young goalkeeper in Shay Given,” he explained.

“Because of the quality we were up against in qualifying, to make it through to the play-offs was a great achievement.”

Holland scored three goals in qualifying and was then handed the number eight shirt as he made the final cut, playing a key role alongside current Colchester United assistant manager Mark Kinsella.

“You are always hoping that you will get the call and I had played a prominent part in qualifying, scoring three goals,” said Holland, who looked likely to be vying for a place with Kinsella alongside Keane, until the Cork-born midfielder departed.

“I felt like I played my part and knowing Mick (McCarthy), especially as I do now, he is very honest and he sticks by the players that have done well for him. You can never be too confident though.

“I was given the number eight shirt once the squad was announced, then the Roy (Keane) situation happened and I ended up playing all the games.

“It worked out for me but had Roy started, who knows what we might have achieved?”

Holland scored in his country’s opening game against Cameroon, cancelling our Patrick M’Boma’s goal for the African nation, and that was a memorable moment for the ex-Ipswich skipper.

“To play at a World Cup was a dream,” said Holland, who swapped shirts with tragic Cameroon midfielder Marc-Vivien Foe – the former Manchester City man who passed away on the football pitch at the Confederations Cup a year later.

“When I scored, I didn’t know what to do or how to celebrate. I then remembered that my wife and family were behind the goal and I looked up and saw them.

“To score with my wife there, my two boys, and my dad was very special.

“We did not start too well against Cameroon but we got stronger in the second half. Then to score an equaliser in the last minute against Germany felt almost like a victory.

“We finished with the game against Saudi Arabia, who had lost 8-0 against Germany and were the whipping boys, and that can be quite dangerous in itself, but we came through and won 3-0.”

He added: “The whole experience was special but it was humid and we were losing eight to 10 pounds a game and losing a lot of water that we were having to replace before and after games. The first game, inparticular, which was an early kick-off, was particularly hot.

“But it was an amazing time and I experienced things that I had never done before.”

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