MUCH OF WHAT makes football the engrossing game that it is are the stories of glorious near-misses, as a sort of side dish to the main course of euphoric glory. All fans will have their fair share of tales of victory and the feelings it stirred up inside. But alongside these are the stories of almost-rans, last-minute defeats and the crushing pain that it inflicted.
This pain is at times worn like a badge of honour by supporters, as a kind acknowledgement that they have served their time, both good and bad. These same supporters can happily rattle off players from their side’s past years; iconic strikers, trophy-winning captains and so on, who they thought were destined to be the next big thing.
Professional football is littered with players in this mould, who burst onto the scene as a teenager but could not transfer that start into their senior careers. Often it is players produced from the lesser lights of football who are so well remembered that normally their names are mentioned with a rueful shake of the head as fans remember what could have been.
On the global football stage, the Republic of Ireland has regularly punched above their weight, without every really troubling the heavyweights, buoyed by individual talent and an inspirational fan base.
The performances of Ireland, and the wonderful attitude of the supporters, in France this summer reminded Europe just why the Boys in Green are so loved. Their exit at the hands of France was met with a muted silence, an acknowledgement they had reached their level and cruelly it was time to head home.
However, despite their relatively early tournament exits in 2002, 2012 and 2016, leaving the party early has not always been Ireland’s style. Between 1997 and ’98, their youth teams matched and beat the best, and stood proudly as the princes of Europe.
In 1997, under manager Brian Kerr, Ireland travelled to Malaysia for the FIFA Under-20 World Championship. Kerr’s young charges were well aware of the calibre of opposition they would be up against in Asia, and the tournament was earmarked as experience for the team.
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However, Ireland played the underdog brilliantly, finishing third and announcing themselves on the world stage. They shook off an opening group game defeat to Ghana to beat the USA and draw with China to qualify for the last-16. From there they beat Morocco and Spain, not the force they were to become but still an accomplished side, before a semi-final date against Argentina.
The semi-final against the South Americans was to prove a step too far for the Irish, losing 1-0 to a team which included Esteban Cambiasso, Juan Román Riquelme and Pablo Aimar in their starting line-up. Ireland beat Ghana 2-1 in the third place play-off, before returning home with their reputations suitably enhanced.
In 1998 Ireland’s youngsters were to go one better and secure European glory at two age categories, under-16 and inder18, a feat never before achieved by a European youth national team.
The under-16 side, managed by Kerr, entered the European Championships in Scotland, drawing with the hosts before beating Finland and Spain in the group stage. They then comfortably saw off both Denmark and Portugal in the quarter and semi-finals respectively, before beating Italy 2-1 in the final, conceding their only tournament goal in the process.
The under-18 competition, played in Cyprus, was a shorter format tournament, with Ireland qualifying directly for the final after topping their group. The side, also under Kerr’s management, comfortably beat Croatia and Cyprus, either side of a 1-0 group defeat to England. In the final, Ireland tasted glory for the second time that summer courtesy of a penalty shootout win over Germany.
That tournament win secured Ireland’s qualification for the 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship in Nigeria the following summer. Again Ireland navigated their way out of a tough group, beating Saudi Arabia and Australia following an opening defeat to Mexico. They were then eliminated in the last-16 by their African hosts via a penalty shootout.
Whilst youth football – particularly when examined at international level – is not regarded as a wholly precise medium of measuring potential, this was no one-off from Kerr’s boys. They had demonstrated across four tournaments, and differing age groups, that could mix it with the best – a factor which appeared to be the signal for a wave of young Irish footballers to continue on the conveyor belt to the senior team, who themselves had failed to qualify for both Euro 96 and France 98.
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However, despite the optimism, Ireland received a rather poor return on their anticipated investment.
In the under-U20 side beaten by Argentina in 1997, there were a number of standout players, such as Michael Cummins and Trevor Molloy, who both scored winning goals in the tournament. But neither player ever played for the senior team; in fact only the squad members to gain senior caps were Damien Duff and Glenn Crowe.
Cummins was a highly-rated midfielder in his youth and he enjoyed a nomadic English lower league career with spells at Middlesbrough and Port Vale. Molloy played the vast majority of his career in Ireland, with brief but unsuccessful spells at Carlisle United and Motherwell.
From the under-16 side that went one better a year later, John O’Shea, Andy Reid and Liam Miller would go on to represent Ireland as seniors, with three others sharing four full caps across their careers.
The golden boys of the under-18’s fared the best in terms of reaching the end of the production line, with Richard Dunne, Robbie Keane, Stephen McPhail and Gary Doherty all going on to represent Ireland with varying degrees of success.
However, tournament stars like goalkeeper Alex O’Reilly, who saved two penalties in the final, and striker Liam George, who scored the winning spot-kick, simply disappeared off the top-flight grid.
George is a particularly interesting case as he was with local club Luton Town during his success with Ireland, where he spent five seasons. He then moved on and began a journeyman career encompassing a staggering 20 clubs in the UK, Ireland and the USA, before gaining a physiotherapy degree in 2011 and starting his own business.
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He was the star of that side, alongside Keane and Dunne, but for a number of reasons he never settled and his career suffered. He was often overlooked by club managers and was plagued by injuries.
Indeed, injuries were to be a real factor in a number of these Irish youngsters not achieving what was predicted. Most notably, McPhail struggled with injuries for most his career, as well battling lymphoma.
The FAI tried to increase the flow of youth talent into the senior team, however a number of factors made the path less clear. Firstly, Ireland’s qualification campaign for the 2002 World Cup and the tournament squad itself was built on experience. It was one of the strongest squads in years and the chance for the underage heroes to get a seat on the plane was significantly reduced.
In truth Dunne, Keane and Duff were selected for the squad, with the latter two enjoying excellent tournaments. However, by 2002 all three were first team regulars at Manchester City, Leeds United and Blackburn Rovers respectively, whilst many of their youth team-mates were struggling to stay in the game. They had developed and outgrown the team that they had shared success with, a sadly frequent event in youth football.
And in January 2003 Kerr was promoted to senior team manager, at a time when theoretically his young heroes of the late 1990s would be reaching their prime. Most, however, were nowhere near international reckoning.
Injuries, bad luck and burnout are just some of the reasons why these young men did not enjoy the careers which many predicted. However, for the majority, the case was that they simply did not make the grade due to a lack of development and talent.
Despite that, for those that didn’t reach the heights of Duff and Keane, they will alway be proud groundbreakers for Irish football, even if their lights did burn out too quickly.
By Feargal Brennan. Follow @FeargalBren