Mark Kelly has a unique place in Republic of Ireland football history – and he remains hopeful the Green Army can write another tomorrow at Euro 2016.
Pompey’s Academy boss hit the headlines in 1988 when he was capped by Ireland as a prodigious 18-year-old talent – a month before he had even made his full debut at club level for the Blues.
And while injuries ultimately deprived him of the opportunity to live up to his billing as ‘the next George Best’, Kelly sees no reason why the Boys in Green cannot emulate their best ever European Championships display this weekend.
Martin O’Neill’s side face pre-tournament favourites and hosts France in Lyon (2pm) with a place in the quarter-finals up for grabs.
That would match their previous high, achieved in 1964 – a time before group stages existed.
Many feel the Irish have a score to settle heading into the game, with France infamously depriving them a chance of a spot at World Cup 2010 courtesy of Thierry Henry’s shameful handball in a play-off defeat.
Kelly, though, believes the needle will only go so far, with a determined and disciplined display required to frustrate the favourites.
He said: ‘It (the Henry handball) will add a little bit of spice to it – I am sure
everyone in Ireland hasn’t forgotten about it!
‘That will be reflected in the banter that is going around.
‘But listen, France are the host nation and big favourites, the longer Ireland can push them and work as a a team to frustrate them, the better chance they have got.
‘If you can do that then you have always got an opportunity, as we saw the other night against Italy.
‘We all know the Italians put out a weakened side but you can’t take anything away from Ireland.’
O’Neill’s men will be backed by a vociferous travelling support, something Kelly feels will be advantageous.
He said: ‘We all know what the Irish are like, they like to party wherever they are.
‘They will be in full voice.
‘I am sure it will feel like a home game – they will make more noise than the French on their home turf.
‘That is the way they have always been – they are a fantastic group to play in front of and I am sure it will be a massive lift to the players.
‘They’ll need it, they are going to need all the help and support they can get.
‘France are a great team with some top players – but where there is chance and hope, you can always dream.’
And a high-energy display on the pitch to match the fans in the stands could yet prove fruitful for the underdogs.
Kelly added: ‘Ireland are going to need every ounce of their energy they can muster because that is how they will win the game – by pressing and working France higher.
‘They need to nick it back early and get the ball in areas in the final third when they can turn and damage them.
‘In tournament football you are always going to get chances, then it is up to you to take them when you can.’
– JEFF MARSHMAN