Another World Cup qualifying campaign gets underway in Belgrade tonight without the Green Army to lend support

Stephen Kenny's injury-ravaged squad face a fancied Serbia behind closed doors in their quest to reach the finals in Qatar next year
Another World Cup qualifying campaign gets underway in Belgrade tonight without the Green Army to lend support

Alan Browne, seen here in action against Harry Winks, left, and Reece James of England, is keen to prove the doubters wrong in Belgrade tonight. Photo by Matt Impey/Sportsfile

HAS there ever been as low key a World Cup opener as the game in Belgrade tonight?

Whether it’s the Pandemic, which has brow-beaten people to a state of near mental exhaustion, or the absence of fans or Stephen Kenny’s side given no chance of qualifying, it’s still all quite depressing.

I suspect it’s that last point that’s most relevant because there are little or no expectations on Ireland filling the top two positions at the end of qualifying games involving Serbia, Luxembourg, Portugal and Azerbaijan.

Ronaldo’s Portugal are odds-on favourites to top the group and earn automatic qualification to the finals in Qatar next year with Serbia tipped to claim the play-off berth.

Even our rivals in qualifying hint at such lethargy because it’s hard to get excited about Luxembourg and Azerbaijan to be fair, not that Ireland are in any great shape for that matter.

Yet, you’d have to feel for Kenny, who has got no rub of the green whatsoever since taking over from Mick McCarthy and is now missing a whole string of players through injury.

Serbia are expected to win comfortably enough, but if Ireland should somehow come home with a point, then Saturday’s tie against Luxembourg at the Aviva takes on a different hue.

What Kenny wouldn’t give to have four points in the bag after the opening couple of games?

Games behind closed doors have become the accepted norm at this stage and there’s many a diehard Ireland fan who’ll be sorely disappointed to miss out on the beginning of another campaign.

It’s not the first time Ireland have had to play without any support as older readers will recall the events of a poisonous Windsor Park night in Belfast in late 1993.

Fans from south of the border were encouraged not to travel for the final qualifying game for their own safety, when Ireland, Spain and Denmark were locked in a fierce battle for the two places at USA 94.

The North were out of the reckoning, but it was manager’s Billy Bingham final game in charge and he stoked the flames with his infamous incendiary ‘bunch of mercenaries’ quote in the build-up.

He was referring to those players from the Republic who qualified under the so-called ‘granny rule’ and it upped the ante even more, not that the locals needed any further prodding.

The ground, in the heart of Loyalist Belfast, resembled a war zone that night and you not only could hear the venom and bile, but feel it, too.

It reached a crescendo, when substitute Alan McLoughlin equalised for the Republic to earn a point in a 1-1 draw which secured runners-up to Spain, who beat the Danes 1-0.

A handful of Republic fans, who somehow had got their hands on tickets, were escorted by machine-gun carrying RUC officers after showing their delight at the goal.

At the same time a crazed skinhead covered in facial tattoos gestured to the media by putting his fingers in his mouth imitating a gun and he, too, was whisked away.

But, not before the man from the Daily Mirror had turned milk white at the shock and wasn’t the better of it for the rest of the night.

Such was the heightened security level that Ireland travelled by plane, a mere hop to Dublin.

Andy Townsend couldn’t resist a dig, when he saw the plane ferrying us south. ‘It’s like something from World War 2,’ he cracked.

Planes were also central to another episode involving Irish fans in the previous World Cup qualifying campaign.

The final group game was away to Malta, a 4,000 mile round-trip, when Jack Charlton’s side needed only a draw to reach the finals for the first time in Italy in 1990.

Over 1,000 fans were stranded at Dublin Airport on the eve of the game after fog shut everything down.

Finally, just after midnight a jumbo and three 737s readied for take-off following a long and fretful day and dawn was breaking as we touched down in Valetta.

Some weren’t as fortunate, however. 

A couple flights departed so late that fans were seeing arriving at the ground after the game had kicked-off.

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