The luck of the Georgians

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Luck, the lack thereof often blamed in defeat, its capricious graces seldom mentioned in victory. It’s often said in both sport and life that we make our own. The ancient Greeks pictured luck in the following manner; they thought of Zeus seated upon his throne in Mount Olympus with two great jars on either side; in one blessings, in the other misfortune.

In a manner common to Greek gods he carelessly sprinkled curses and good fortune randomly on the plain people of Greece. It’s tempting to think of Zeus providing over the peaks and troughs of Irish football, the curses and misfortune falling on the talented but unsuccessful sides of the 70s and 80s under the tutelage of Messrs. Tuohy, Giles and Hand; injuries for crucial games, goals disallowed for imagined infringements, clear penalties going unawarded. Perhaps members of those teams still dream of games against Bulgaria, Belgium, France and others and wonder, What if?

As a corollary many have the view that those Irish teams which qualified for tournaments got the “rub of the green”, that Trapattoni was ultimately fortunate in getting a kind draw against Estonia in the play-offs, or that Jack Charlton was specially favoured somehow, whether it was Gary McKay’s goal against Bulgaria during the Euro 88 qualifiers or the way the World Cup 90 group stages panned out with Ireland qualifying with three draws and still getting the more favourable tie versus Romania.

There is of course the idea that luck is not luck at all, that there is the concept of karma, that one’s actions in the past influence what happens to you in future it has a certain footballing currency as a theory; pundits always observe that “luck balances out over the course of a season”. Perhaps we could look at the role karma played (if you’re that way inclined) in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, that perhaps that the advantages accrued against humble Georgia in two games was cosmically balanced out by the hand of a Frenchman named Henry.

A quick reminder of the 2010 qualifying group in which Ireland found themselves; first seeds were reigning World Champions Italy, followed by Bulgaria (a bogey side for many previous Ireland sides) and Cyprus, who had caused Steve Staunton such difficulty during his time as “gaffer”. Bottom seeds were Montenegro who were competing in their first World Cup qualifying campaign after their footballing split from Serbia, and then finally there was Georgia.

Ireland Georgia 2009

As we look ahead to the opening phases of the Euro 2016 qualifiers let’s remember these two controversial games that Ireland have played against the former Soviet state. Indeed the two games were among the most controversial of the campaign, and in both, in very different ways Ireland had luck on their side.

The first game against Georgia on September 6th 2008 was the first competitive game for both national team managers. Giovanni Trapattoni seeking to restore Irish pride and confidence after the shambolic reign of Steve Staunton faced off against the Georgia’s new Argentinian coach Héctor Cúper, formerly of Valencia and Inter Milan. Georgia were trying to improve on their second from bottom finish in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, the only high points from those games being victories over bottom side Faroe Islands and a 2-0 home win against Scotland who they will again face in qualifying for Euro 2016.

However hopes for another “home” victory were dealt a blow by the escalating border confrontations between Georgia and her neighbour Russia. The reintegration of the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, effectively autonomous within the Georgian state, had been part of the recent electoral campaign of President Mikheil Saakashvili. Throughout July and August 2008 military activity by both Georgian and Russian armed forces escalated along the border regions of South Ossetia with battle proper commencing in early August.

It quickly became clear that the Georgians could not match the military might of the Russians and they were quickly pushed back from South Ossetia with Russian troops crossing into Georgia itself and going as far to bomb areas in and around Tbilisi, including the airport. Russian forces had already begun their withdrawal by the time the squads for the Ireland v Georgia game were due to be named.

The Georgian FA were reluctant to cede home advantage and initially wanted the game to proceed in Tbilisi, however on August 28th FIFA issued the following statement:

After carefully assessing the situation, the Bureau of the Organising Committee for the FIFA World Cup today decided that the preliminary competition match between Georgia and the Republic of Ireland will take place at a neutral venue due to the current unrest in Georgia.

The GFF (Georgian FA) were asked to choose an alternative location for their “home” game, and initially chose Karlsruhe in Germany but it was decided that it would not be possible to host a game there on such short notice and that it would be hosted instead in Mainz in the 20,000 capacity Bruchweg stadium. That the crowd would be a paltry 4,500, mostly made up of travelling Irish fans should be no surprise.

Ireland lined out in the style and formation that would quickly become familiar to fans; a 4-4-2 with two attacking wingers (McGeady and Stephen Hunt) and two central holding midfielders (Whelan and Stephen Reid) and Keane and Doyle up front. Probably the most prominent names in the Georgian line-up were Blackburn defender Zurab Khizanishvili and AC Milan’s Kakha Kaladze while Karlsruhe’s Alexander Iashvili was expected to provide much of the attacking threat.

Ireland would take the lead early on when, after 13 minutes good link up play from Aidan McGeady and Robbie Keane created a simple opportunity for Reading striker Doyle to score from three yards. With Reid and McGeady performing strongly early on, Georgia did well to enter the dressing room at half time only one-nil down. In the second half both Keane and McGeady had good opportunities before Glenn Whelan scored on 70 minutes with a speculative shot from distance that the young Georgian keeper, Loria fumbled into the net.

With the final whistle looming one of Georgia’s better young players, Levan Kenia scored a consolation from a corner. The highly rated midfielder had yet to turn 18 but this would already be his third international goal, he was also on the cusp of breaking into the Schalke 04 first team, however fast forward to the present day and Kenia is 23 and without a club having been released by Bundesliga 2 side Fortuna Dusseldorf. His strike against Ireland has been his last at international level to date.

Although Ireland only secured a victory by a single goal their display had been encouraging and they were clearly the stronger side on the night, boding well for Trappatoni’s reign. It is doubtful if even in the charged atmosphere of Dinamo Arena would have brought about an improved result although both Cyprus and Bulgaria played there in Tbilisi during qualifying could only manage a draw.

The Georgians would look far more dangerous in the return fixture in February 2009 which took place in Croke Park. The Irish were without Stephen Reid, the Blackburn midfielder side-lined by a serious injury, his place would be taken by Keith Andrews, Duff would come in for Hunt and Steve Finnan would be replaced by Stephen Kelly who had just joined Stoke City on loan. Kelly was involved early on but not in a positive way. He was caught out by a long ball over the top and failed to read the bounce which let in Iashvili to score in the first minute of the game. Ireland attempted a first half fight back and had the ball in the net only for Doyle to be ruled off-side.

During the second half Iashvili would likewise have a goal ruled out for off-side before in the 73 minute the major turning point of the match occurred. With Keane running through into the Georgian box and to get onto the end of a long ball from midfield, the ball bounced up in close proximity to a Georgian defender and the referees whistle rang out. Despite replays showing that the ball made no contact with the Georgian player, Khizanishvili was given a yellow card for handball and penalty was awarded for a non-existent offence. Robbie Keane, gleefully and with a cool head dispatched the kick to draw Ireland level. Only five minutes later Keane was on hand again to score a fine headed goal from a McGeady corner which secured a second successive 2-1 victory over the Georgians.

Georgia would finish bottom of World Cup qualifying group 8, without a win and with only three draws to their credit. Cúper’s contract was not renewed when it ended in December 2009 by which time he had already signed a contract to take over coaching duties with Greek side Aris Theassaloniki. Ireland would finish second in the group behind Italy, undefeated but with only four wins from ten qualifying games. The playoffs beckoned once again and it was in Paris on a November night that Ireland’s World Cup dreams finally came to an end, Henry’s handball for Gallas’ extra-time goal separating the sides.

Players like Damien Duff, Richard Dunne and even manager Giovanni Trapattoni were pragmatic enough to state they didn’t expect Henry not to take advantage in the situation, Duff went so far as to say that in Henry’s shoes he would have done the same thing. The media reaction after the match was to describe the outcome for the Irish side as a “hard luck” story.

The Irish pleas for entry into the World Cup as a 33rd team fell on deaf ears in FIFA and it was pointed out that if Ireland were included in this manner then surely Costa Rica, defeated by Uruguay in a playoff thanks to an offside goal should also be included as a 34th team. For those who view luck as something of karmic alignment perhaps they saw Henry’s handball as a debit against the credits accrued in the earlier games against Georgia.

The Author

Gerry Farrell

Gerry Farrell, Dublin based football enthusiast with an interest in League of Ireland, the Irish National Team, and a bit of everything else. Bohemian in my outlook and footballing alliegiances, presenter of "The Beautiful Game" on Phoenix FM 92.5. Has nearly completed the Panini Euro 88 sticker album.

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