Finnan ready

Friday 31 August 2001

Fulham's Steve Finnan is on stand-by to be plunged into the Republic of Ireland's make or break World Cup qualifier against Holland.

The Premiership promotion-winner is manager Mick McCarthy's only realistic option should Ian Harte's gashed ankle fail to heal sufficiently in time for Saturday's Group Two crunch at Lansdowne Road.

Free-kick master Harte has not kicked a ball in anger since damaging the ankle in a clash with West Ham's Paolo di Canio during the goalless draw at Upton Park last Saturday.

McCarthy will give him as long as possible for the stitches to knit but Harte has revealed the cut is in exactly the spot where he normally strikes the ball and the manager.

McCarthy's first-choice defence has already been hit by injuries.

"We remain optimistic but you've got to say Hartey is still a doubt," admitted McCarthy. "We are going to give him as long as possible even if it takes until Saturday morning."

But if the sharp-shooting defender is ruled out he will be replaced on the left by Leeds club-mate Gary Kelly - also Harte's uncle by marriage to his sister.

That would mean Finnan taking the Irish right-back role - usually contested by Kelly and injured Tottenham star Steve Carr - even though his eight previous caps, five as a substitute, have all been won as a right midfielder.

At Fulham, though, Finnan has made the right-back position his own.

He said: "Although I know that if I do get in for Ireland it will because of somebody else's misfortunes with injury, but I'm ready. Of course, I am."

Even a draw will practically guarantee unbeaten Ireland second in Group Two and a place in the play-offs for a major finals for the third time running.

They will start tomorrow at the top of the table, four points ahead of third-placed Holland.

Portugal, who have an even easier run-in, remain heavy favourites to clinch the only automatic qualifying place in the group - unless Ireland win tomorrow and score a hatful of goals in their final tie at home to Cyprus next month.

"How bad will that feel if we finish the group unbeaten and still don't qualify for Japan and South Korea?" asked McCarthy. "But there is now way we'll play for a draw against Holland. Why change our shape and our approach now?

"But it is no good beating the Dutch or, at worst, drawing with them only to get knocked out in the play-offs. "We've been there before and it is something I'd like to change because it would be the pinnacle of my career as a coach to reach the finals of a World Cup."