Ireland: Fitzpatrick Seeks Winning Start

07.09.2004

By Rory Squires, PA International

Ireland coach Gerry Fitzpatrick admits that it has been difficult to prepare for the start of their upcoming European Championships qualifying campaign without some of his star players.

Fitzpatrick is still waiting for the likes of centre Pat Burke and forward Jim Moran to arrive from Spanish sides Real Madrid and Canarias Telecom, while Italian side Varese have been reluctant to release power forward Dan Callahan.

However, all three are expected to be ready and available for Ireland's opening clash at Malta on Saturday, and Fitzpatrick is philosophical about the club versus country predicament.

"We've had some problems with some players not getting released by their clubs," Fitzpatrick told PA International.

"We're on tenterhooks, but this for us is a new venture.

"We are from just a couple of years ago taking our squad out of amateur leagues in Ireland to suddenly having players in some of the major European leagues.

"It is a new learning curve for us, dealing with European clubs.

"But it's also a big positive, and a good problem, because it shows how far we have come."

With Burke, Moran and Callahan at his disposal, Fitzpatrick will be able to form his battle-plan for the forthcoming games in Malta, at home to Switzerland and away to the Slovak Republic in the space of just seven days this month, before the group stage is completed with the return legs taking place in a year's time.

The plan is to win the group, and progress to the knockout stages of the tournament.

Reaching the final would ensure promotion to Division A, giving Ireland the chance to test themselves against Europe's top nations.

However, Fitzpatrick is just looking forward to the next game.

"I expect Malta to come out highly motivated and well organised in front of their own fans," he said.

"Hopefully we can match their commitment and it would be nice to go back to Dublin with a win under our belt.

"Things are going fairly well. We've played against Denmark, England and a Turkey national team and did okay.

"Our aim is to try to win the group, and generally we are looking to up the stakes from our point of view, but the main thing is to take one game at a time.

"If I have all our players available I am confident. We are training well and are in good spirits."

Ireland will start the campaign as one of the favourites for promotion, having narrowly missed out on qualification for Eurobasket 2003.

Former Germany coach Henrik Dettman even went as far as to say they are just a point guard away from being one of the top 16 teams in Europe - and Fitzpatrick knows that it will be an area of the team under scrutiny in the upcoming games.

"It's a very nice thing to say, but I don't know about top 16," he added.

"I would say that our point guard area is an area we have had real problems with and is where we do need to improve.

"However we have a very good shooting guard, Jay Larranaga, who has slotted into the point guard situation.

"He has so many good qualities and he is a natural leader. He's given up some of his own game to play at point guard which is very unselfish, and when young players can look at someone like him that can only be a good thing."

Fitzpatrick is confident Larranaga can fill the void in the team, and he believes his troops have the necessary quality to make a winning start on Saturday.

"We have a lot more size in the team, and we have players who have had experience in the NBA," he added.

"Our front court is quite experienced and fairly sizey, and the back court has a lot of experience in European leagues.

"I think obviously Pat Burke is an excellent player, and Marty Conlon has also brought a great deal of experience and composure to the team.

"We've also had Dan Callahan coming out of retirement because he could see the potential and the possibilities in the team."


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