End of an era arrives as Republic of Ireland's famous four pass the baton
If tonight's match feels difficult and disconcerting for the Republic of Ireland, it will not just be because of the German opposition. This qualifier at the Aviva Stadium is the start of a new era for Irish football, or at least a preparation for one.
The national team has been supported for a generation by Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane. But tonight's game will include none of them, the first competitive match without one of that quartet for almost precisely 15 years.
The last time was 11 October 1997, in a qualifier for the France '98 World Cup at Lansdowne Road against Romania. It was just over three years after USA '94, and Ray Houghton and Tony Cascarino were still playing, but after that game a 21-year-old Given, who had already been capped, came in for the two- legged play-off against Belgium to reach the finals.
The teenaged Keane – who was part of Ireland's winning team at the 1998 European Under-18 Championship along with Dunne – made his international debut that year, along with Duff. The next 14 years are well-known.
Their last great effort, it seems, was to take Ireland to the European Championship this summer in Poland and Ukraine. It was a difficult tournament for Giovanni Trapattoni's team, looking very much like a side whose players, ideas and approach were all out of date.
Given and Duff, who won 225 caps for the Republic between them, both decided to end their careers later in the summer. Keane and Dunne decided to fight on, hoping to take Ireland to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.
But neither of that pair, with just the 197 caps in total, is fit enough for tonight's game against Germany. Dunne has not played all season, and with Paul Lambert so keen to rebuild Aston Villa around younger, hungrier names – Given has already been dropped – he is not certain to get back in. Keane did make this squad but he failed a fitness test yesterday morning.
Keane could be fit for Tuesday night's game in the Faroe Islands, and he may well win another four caps to break Given's Irish record of 125. But, as a 32-year-old striker playing Major League Soccer, it is hard to avoid the judgement that Keane, like Dunne, Duff and Given, is on the down-slope of his career.
It is particularly poignant because arguably the peak of that generation came against Germany at the Kashima Stadium in Japan. Keane scored an added-time equaliser against Rudi Völler's side to help Ireland into the last 16 of the 2002 World Cup. Keane was just 21, Duff was 23 and Given 26. Dunne, who did not come off the bench, was 22.
Their era is now ending. James McCarthy was just 11 years old when Keane was scoring past Oliver Kahn. Seamus Coleman was 13. But they will both start tonight. John O'Shea will be captain.
Kick-off Tonight, 7.45pm, Aviva Stadium.
TV Sky Sports 2.
Referee N Rizzoli (Italy).