Monday 27 March 2017

'We could have made it to World Cup final' - Ireland hero on his 2002 regrets

Breen rues missed opportunity in 2002 but refuses to blame Saipan

The Ireland team that drew with Germany in their Group E match at the 2002 World Cup finals (from left) – Back row: Steve Staunton, Kevin Kilbane, Gary Breen, Ian Harte and Steve Finnan. Front: Robbie Keane, Matt Holland, Mark Kinsella, Gary Kelly, Shay Given and Damien Duff. Photo: Sportsfile
The Ireland team that drew with Germany in their Group E match at the 2002 World Cup finals (from left) – Back row: Steve Staunton, Kevin Kilbane, Gary Breen, Ian Harte and Steve Finnan. Front: Robbie Keane, Matt Holland, Mark Kinsella, Gary Kelly, Shay Given and Damien Duff. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Gary Breen comes across as a man who is quietly content with what he achieved in his career, but even 14 years after Ireland's last appearance at a World Cup, there is still a tinge of regret.

The controversy that clouded Ireland's campaign will forever be etched in the history books but it's not Saipan that irks Breen, as he believes that his side could have gotten to a World Cup final, even without Roy Keane.

Breen played every minute of Ireland's campaign and his brilliant goal against Saudi Arabia ensured that he will always be fondly remembered.

It was that tournament that the famous 'we all dream of a team of Gary Breens' chant really ignited but as he modestly put it, "the reality is you wouldn't win many games if you had a team of Gary Breens!"

Looking back on the World Cup, despite Ireland getting to the last 16, Breen firmly believes that they failed to fulfil their potential, even with their talismanic skipper sitting back at home.

"It was such a shame and I look back at the World Cup with a lot of regret because I genuinely believe that we could have mad it to the final," Breen said.

"If we had won the penalty shootout (against Spain), we would've got South Korea in the quarter-finals, Germany in the semis and we really could have been in a really good place at that time.

"In terms of losing your best player prior to the tournament, it's a massive disappointment and always will be.

"It was a difficult one in terms of the whole scenario. Even now I look back on it and the lads coming out with their books. . . sometimes I read the stories and wonder if I was actually there in terms of the versions.

"Obviously people ask me but I just say 'you had to be there'. I don't really go into it. It was a real shame because Roy is the best player I ever played with for Ireland.

"You're playing for your country at the World Cup. That's all the motivation you need. It wasn't a case of Roy went and we were galvanised.

"We were just focused on doing what we all dreamed about, and that was to represent Ireland. The way the tournament developed and the opportunity we would've had if we had won the penalty shootout, you just feel it was a massive opportunity for us."

Breen is reluctant to divulge any more information on the actual goings on in Saipan but he makes it abundantly clear that some players fabricated the truth.

Born to a Kerry mother and with his dad from Clare, despite being born and raised in London, Breen was always in touch with his Irish roots but he reckons that not every English-born player who went on to play for Ireland felt the same way as he did growing up.

Under Damien Richardson at Gillingham, Breen was offered the chance to join up with the England U-21 squad but instead of even considering the possibility, he looked at it as almost an insult from his manager.

"You grow up dreaming of playing for Ireland, you literally do," Breen maintained.

"I'm very vocal about it, even now. I've got a London accent, of course, but I'm mindful that when you play for your country it elevates you to a different level and you have to protect that.

"When we're seeing people declaring for other countries, rugby whatever, you're losing that.

"Club football gives you the opportunity to do what you want but it's unique, international football. You have to keep that passion that's just engrained in you in terms of playing for your country.

Nonsense

"I don't bang the drum about it, but I am mindful whether it's other sports, like rugby, this residency rule, nah. It's a nonsense for me. I don't agree with it. This is what's so unique.

"When I'm growing up dreaming of playing for Ireland, it's in major tournaments and then to get the opportunity, it was everything and more I hoped it could be.

"Lads who didn't grow up dreaming of playing - like (Andy) Townsend, (Tony) Cascarino. . . they're the guys I idolised in terms of watching them in '88 and '90.

"I know Andy well. Cas, and all the guys who it can be aimed at and they have been wonderful servants for Ireland, no doubt about it.

"Cas comes out with stuff he comes out with, I'm sure there are other guys who might be accused of it now growing up.

"My reference point to anyone of my generation, give or take a couple years here or there is 'in 1988 who were you supporting?'. If you were supporting England that day then, for me, it doesn't quite stack up."

Gary Breen was launching a campaign to send a SPAR team of Gary Breens to France in June. Visit www.spar.ie for further details

Irish Independent

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