For the Republic of Ireland squad who took part in the 1997 FIFA World Youth Championship in Malaysia, it was a tournament bookended with matches against Ghana. While the first ended in defeat, the second brought glory as the win earned the Boys in Green a historic third place in the Under-20 World Cup. Coach Brian Kerr brought together a group of 18 players that went further than any Irish team had gone before (or since) in a major competition. Twenty-five years on, that 24-nation competition is still a remarkable chapter in the story of Irish football.
In the mid-90s, football in Ireland was emerging from the Jack Charlton era following his resignation as national team manager. The Englishman had guided the country to a first ever European Championship (Euro ‘88) and first World Cup (Italia ‘90, followed by USA ‘94). He drew his squad from players operating at the top level in the UK who brought success like never before but with what many viewed as a rudimentary game plan of 4-4-2 long-ball football.
Speaking ahead of the U20 tournament, Kerr said there would be certain similarities between his and the senior team such as being “well organised, motivated and having a lot of fighting spirit.” However, the Dubliner made it clear that his charges would be playing “a very different style of football to what has been associated with the Irish side under Jack.”
The squad was brought together for a series of friendlies and a training camp in Limerick in June ahead of travelling to Southeast Asia. While there was no warm weather work – it being an Irish summer after all – the players did undertake some acclimatisation for the humid conditions that awaited them by going to the sauna and training in several layers of clothing. Put through their paces on the pitch, the team worked on the formation that would ultimately prove highly successful in Malaysia.
Kerr, ably assisted by the late Noel O’Reilly, handed the captain’s armband to Thomas Morgan. “Brian and Noel were very meticulous and were fantastic in terms of preparation,” recalled Morgan. “They left no stone unturned but didn’t confuse the situation too much by saying I want you to do this, that and the other. They knew everyone’s strengths.
“They gave us a belief. They trusted us. When you get that trust on a football pitch, you want to go and play and deliver.”
“They were brilliant to work with. I loved them. They gave us the confidence to go out and play 4-3-3. The ball wasn’t going over my head. It was going through us in midfield and getting it out to the wings to Damien Duff and Trevor Molloy and up to Neale Fenn as the central striker.”
That belief propelled Ireland further in the tournament than any other European side including countries whose players would go on to have stellar careers, winning all that could be won in football; World Cups, European Championships, Champions Leagues and Ballons d’Or.
The French side included two players who would combine to prevent the senior Republic of Ireland team qualifying for the 2010 World Cup – Thierry Henry’s handball leading to William Gallas’ goal in the infamous play-off in the Stade de France. Les Bleus’ Under-20s also included Nicolas Anelka, Mikaël Silvestre and David Trezeguet. The England team featured Premier League stars-in-the-making such as Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher, Kieron Dyer, and Danny Murphy.
In contrast, the Ireland squad had players plying their trade across different levels in Britain, along with three from the League of Ireland; Aidan Lynch (UCD), Dessie Baker (Shelbourne) and Trevor Molloy who had been let go by Shamrock Rovers the previous year and was lining out in the second tier of the Irish domestic league.
“I was playing with Athlone Town in the First Division when I caught the eye of Brian Kerr and he brought me into the squad,” said Molloy in From Ringsend to Tallaght. “There were injuries to a few players so he gave me a chance and I grabbed it with both hands. I wasn’t really expecting to play because you had Glen Crowe, Dessie Baker who’d been at Manchester United, Spurs striker Neale Fenn and Duff. These were the established lads playing up front. But I got game time (in pre-tournament friendlies) and scored a hat-trick in the first and second games so he threw me in.”
In the opening group clash, the Boys in Green had a tough task as they faced a Ghanaian side that had won the Under-17 World Cup two years previously. With a 5.30pm kick-off local time, Ireland also struggled with the heat.
“The conditions were obviously particularly difficult for us,” recalled Brian Kerr in the documentary Kerr’s Kids. “The temperatures were in the 30s and the humidity was draining.”
“You were lathered in sweat just walking around without even trying to play football on a massive big pitch.”
The West African side took a lead into half-time before Ireland found an equaliser just after the break from a five-man move involving Robbie Ryan, Morgan, Fenn and Duff with Molloy opening his tournament goalscoring account. However, Ghana claimed the victory with a strike mid-way through the second half.
Having had an opening game defeat, it was crucial for the Irish to pick themselves up just two days later when they took on the USA. They were thankful for the heavy rain which fell prior to kick-off which cooled the temperature. And inside six minutes, the Republic had the lead thanks to a Michael Cummins header as he converted an Alan Kirby corner. Kerr’s men added a second mid-way through the half thanks to a Ramiro Corrales own goal and claimed the win despite conceding a penalty before half-time.
With a victory secured, Ireland knew a draw in their final group game against China would be good enough to progress to the knockout stages. Despite going a goal down after 11 minutes, Cummins grabbed his second goal of the competition ten minutes later. “It was a great game under pressure playing against a team who were suited to the conditions,” said Kerr. “They were much more used to the heat and humidity than my red-faced freckled ginger-haired boys. But we played very well and the football we played was really good. We were under pressure as China needed to win to stay in the tournament.
“It was always about playing football and giving it to players’ feet. We couldn’t afford to bang it and chase it. We didn’t have the players or the conditioning to do that. We were allowing teams to come onto us and playing on the counter. We got some great goals on the counter attack.”
Ireland saw out the game for the required draw despite playing the final 11 minutes with only ten men after referee Jose Luis Da Rosa gave goalkeeper Derek O’Connor a second yellow card for time wasting.
“I could hardly believe my eyes,” O’Connor said afterwards. “That’s the way I always kick out the ball. I take a light pause before I actually kick the ball but that is only to get my feet right and to get my balance.”
It wasn’t much consolation to O’Connor, who had to sit out the next match due to suspension, but the Uruguayan referee did not officiate again at the tournament.
In the last 16, Ireland faced Morocco with Paul Whelan starting in goal. Fenn put the Republic a goal up and the forward was crucial to the style of play his side could deploy in the sweltering conditions, according to Morgan.
“Any midfielder will tell you when the ball goes up to the striker’s feet and you know it is going to stick, that is what you want especially in that heat. With Neale, he was the focal point for the team up front and he’d hold it for the wingers or midfielders to get up to support him.”
Two minutes from the break, Morocco got an equaliser after Niall Inman was unlucky to put the ball through his own net. Level after 90 minutes, the match went to Golden Goal extra time with Damien Duff netting seven minutes into the first extra period to end the game with a famous Irish victory.
“I remember being so excited seeing this young skinny player on the left wing,” said Kerr about Duff. “He was comfortable (on the ball), balanced, tricky and fast. He had the acceleration to leave players. He could go inside or outside on darting runs.”
The win earned Ireland a place in the quarter-finals where they would face Spain who emerged 2-0 winners over Canada from their last 16 tie the following day. “I was happy once I saw Spain that we could devise a plan to beat them,” said Kerr. “I was confident in my own head and the confidence grew amongst the players that we could beat Spain.”
In the last eight clash, Kerr’s team went 1-0 up seven minutes into the second half after Molloy converted a penalty. “Trevor was one of those players who lit that tournament up,” said Morgan. “He got that belief from the coaches. Myself and Trevor were good friends from the inner-city (in Dublin). We came home from Malaysia and signed for St. Pats together afterwards. We won back-to-back leagues with Pats and are still good friends.”
Molloy wasn’t fazed by stepping up from the League of Ireland second tier to lining out with players based in the UK. “That squad was amazing,” he said. “It was a bit of an eye-opener to go from second team football with Shamrock Rovers one week, then Athlone in the First Division and then all of a sudden you’re with players who are earning big money in England. The work you had to put in to keep the ball and get close to them was ridiculous. They were very, very good. My confidence coming back (after the tournament) was huge. I could have walked on water.”
Ireland were now 90 minutes away from a World Cup final but blocking their way in the last four was an Argentina team managed by Jose Peckermann.
His side had already sent home both England and Brazil and featured a host of players who would become household names and multiple title winners. They included Esteban Cambiasso and Walter Samuel (who would both win the Champions League and five Serie A titles with Inter Milan), Juan Riquelme (who would skipper Argentina to Olympic gold in 2008 and win three Copa Libertadores with Boca Juniors), and Pablo Aimar who won two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup with Valencia.
“The squad that they had was incredible and they went on to have fantastic careers,” said Morgan. “I remember the heat was unbelievable. We did the warm-up in the small bit of shade in the stadium. Noel did that as he was always thinking ahead.”
Bernardo Romeo put Argentina 1-0 up ten minutes into the second half but Ireland had chances to equalise through a Colin Hawkins header and Morgan having an attempt that went close. “I had a shot from outside the box that went over the crossbar. It wasn’t a bad old effort. If we got that equaliser in the last few minutes, I think we had the mettle to go on and win that game. I personally think we would have then won the whole thing.”
In the final, Argentina beat Uruguay in what was the middle of a remarkable 12-year period when the Albicelestes won five under-20 World Cup crowns. Meanwhile Ireland had to pick themselves up for the bronze medal play-off match where they would face Ghana for the second time in the tournament and in what was their seventh game in just 19 days.
In front of 28,000 spectators, Dessie Baker gave Ireland a lead inside two minutes only for Ghana to equalise three minutes later. A brilliant individual goal from star player Duff sealed a 2-1 win for the Republic and third place in the competition.
The President of Ireland Mary Robinson sent her congratulations to the team after their efforts secured the bronze medals. “It is a wonderful reflection on the young talent which exists in Ireland today and augurs well for the future of Irish soccer.” The Irish Times chief football correspondent Peter Byrne wrote: “It is inconceivable that players of the quality of Damien Duff will not, in time, surface in Ireland’s senior team. There are those who see in this precocious talent a parallel with Liam Brady and that, perhaps, is the highest praise which can be bestowed on him.”
Yet remarkably, Duff would be one of just two players from Kerr’s squad who would go on to graduate to senior international football. Duff won a century of caps for Ireland, represented his country at the Korea/Japan World Cup in 2002, won two Premier League titles with Chelsea, and later became manager of League of Ireland side Shelbourne. Glen Crowe was the only other to make the senior grade earning two international appearances. However, this would be viewed as an anomaly for an Irish domestic-based footballer.
Having just two players step up from the squad in Malaysia shows what a remarkable achievement it was to come third in the tournament. Of course, many would go one to forge professional careers in the game. Robbie Ryan played over 200 times for Millwall including featuring in the 2004 FA Cup final and Michael Cummins made over 500 appearances in the English football league.
Some plied their trade in the League of Ireland where they had remarkable success such as Glen Crowe who would win five titles (four with Bohemians and one with Shelbourne), Thomas Morgan (two with Shelbourne and two with St. Patrick’s Athletic), Dessie Baker (three with Shelbourne and one with Shamrock Rovers), Colin Hawkins (two titles with St. Pat’s and one each with Bohs and Shels), Neale Fenn (two with Bohs and one with Shamrock Rovers) and Trevor Molloy (two with St. Pat’s and one with Bohs) while Alan Kirby won four FAI Cups with three different clubs.
Speaking to the Irish Times after his team had lit up the Under 20 finals, Brian Kerr perhaps summed it up best when he said: “To me, the football that Ireland teams played in the last 10 years (under Jack Charlton) was stone-age stuff. The theory that because every other team is skillful and we’re not skillful, therefore we must find other means of countering it, is no longer valid. We proved in Malaysia that Irish players are as skillful as the next.”
Macdara Ferris is the co-author of ‘From Ringsend to Tallaght: The Shamrock Rovers players’ stories’ and a senior reporter with ExtraTime.com.
Image: Matthew Ashton is a football photographer from Shrewsbury. He has worked at numerous tournaments and captured Zidane’s two goals at the World Cup final in Paris at France 1998. www.matthewashton.com
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