'Don’t talk to me unless you come back with medals’ - The Malaysia Marvels and Ireland's World Cup glory
Members of Ireland’s famed 1997 FIFA World Youth Championship squad gathered in the foyer of Dublin’s Gresham Hotel earlier this month for their first reunion in over 20 years.
The last time this group had come together was at Dublin Airport in 1997, where Brian Kerr’s Ireland U20’s squad were greeted by Irish football fans after winning a third-place play-off against Ghana at the 1997 FIFA World Youth Championships in Malaysia.
Damien Duff’s breakaway goal in the 33rd minute helped seal Ireland a 2-1 victory and the country’s first and only ever medal at a FIFA World Cup, underage or otherwise.
Kerr had brought together a squad of domestic players, burgeoning talents, and players who had just been released by their clubs in England, and guided them to a World Cup semi-final where they were narrowly beaten by an Argentinian side that boasted the likes of Esteban Cambiasso, Juan Roman Riquelme and Pablo Aimar, future giants of the European game.
Diego Placente, Juan Roman Riquelme, Bernardo Romeo, Pablo Aimar and Esteban Cambiasso, 1997. pic.twitter.com/aevFMKLLfo— 90s Football (@90sfootball) February 28, 2017
But Ireland had Damien Duff, an 18-year-old winger who dazzled with his play which quickly led to his promotion to the Blackburn Rovers first team the following season.
Duff enjoyed a breakout tournament in Malaysia and started 26 games for Blackburn the following season, before going on to win a League Cup with the Riversiders, two Premier League titles with Chelsea, and a UEFA Europa League runners-up medal with Fulham, but here at the Gresham, he’s just Damien, the youngest of Kerr’s 18-man squad.
“We had some great players in this squad and two of them went on to play for Ireland,” Kerr said in his opening address to assembled media.
“The two players got 102 caps between them and Damien has 100 of them,” he added with a wry smile.
“I’m sure the journalists here can work out who got the other two caps.”
Duff immediately buried his head as the rest of his former teammates laughed, while Glen Crowe, Bohemians all-time leading league goalscorer and two-cap international later joked about how he fulfilled the other half of the youth side’s international cohort.
But from the outset it was clear that this was going to be the tone for the morning – jovial, celebratory and cheerful – as if they were all about to jet off on holiday together – a notion that Kerr quickly squashed at the same juncture 20 years ago.
“I had booked a holiday [before the tournament] as I didn’t think I would be involved in the World Cup,” said left-back Robbie Ryan.
“I was booked to go away and I received a letter from [assistant manager] Noel O’Reilly and Brian and I couldn’t believe it – a World Cup."
The letter that Kerr and O’Reilly had sent out to the players was a statement of intent, as much as it was a notification that they had been selected for the upcoming World Cup.
Warning players to avoid booking holidays, or cancelling trips they had already paid for, was just one of Kerr’s many tactics to instil a sense of belief in his players.
“The letter I sent to the players was an information letter, but also, psychologically, I wanted them to think we were going there to perform, and be in with a chance, and for them to think about winning medals.
“I had always been with teams that had been in contention, or I was able to coach teams to get them to be within contention, and that was what my intention was when I had got the international job [technical director of the Republic of Ireland’s youth teams].
“I had worked with [Liam] Tuohy and we had been at three European finals, we got to the semi-final in Russia in 1985, we had been at the World Cup, so I knew that Irish players could play at these tournaments and play well."
Kerr also knew the conditions that his side would be greeted with when they arrived in Malaysia for the start of the tournament.
Widely lauded for his ability to inspire and motivate his Irish teams, with Duff once claiming that he’d almost have his Irish sides in tears before they hit the pitch, Kerr also knew that his teams needed to be ready to play in whatever conditions they faced, even if some of his methods of preparation for those conditions were often met with a degree of scepticism from his players.
“We had to know pretty early that we were going to the World Cup because it was in Malaysia,” said centre-back Colin Hawkins.
“I remember we went to Limerick and Brian was getting us prepared for the heat and we were wearing these big jackets in the saunas and you had to just start getting your vaccinations and all that sorted”.
“Brian and Noel were mad,” added Ryan.
“They are mad to be fair to them but they had us all loving them from day one and everything they had done was proper.”
That love may have been felt by some more than it was by others in the squad, with Glen Crowe, who was at Wolverhampton Wanderers at the time, admittedly not a huge fan of Kerr’s acclimatisation methods.
“It was very hot and sunny training down in Limerick at the time, you were training and trying to take these big jackets off,” said Crowe before Hawkins abruptly interjected: “Of all the players this man probably struggled the most in the heat out there.”
Crowe fired back: “I was like a turkey I was. I was sweating out there for the whole month. It was ridiculous.”
Hawkins added that Ireland often had to play during the day when the Malaysian humidity was at its most intense, with temperatures frequently exceeding 30 degrees celsius.
“We were playing against Ghana, Morocco, Argentina, China… all these boys that were used to that type of heat... China were the fittest team I’ve ever played against.
“Even the games, we were playing at these crazy times where it was still the hot part of the day and the humidity was a huge thing, so to get through that was huge.”
The harshness of the humidity would only be matched by the uncertainty of Ireland’s path through the group stages.
Paired with Ghana, China and the US in Group C, Ireland finished second behind Ghana after an opening round defeat to the Black Stars at the Darul Aman Stadium in Alor Setar.
The loss meant that Ireland would need a win against either the US or China to stand any realistic chance of progressing to the knockout stages, but Ryan insists that confidence never wavered under Kerr and O’Reilly.
“We played Ghana and even though we lost we said ‘you know what, that wasn’t too bad’,” added Ryan.
“We took a bit of belief from that game and then we went and beat the US and got a point against China and we were through.”
A 1-1 draw with China in the final group game put Ireland through to the round of 16 where they would face Morocco in Shah Alam, the state capital of Selangor, one of Malaysia’s 13 states.
The Irish squad weren’t too concerned about the Moroccans, or what lay ahead of them in Spain and Argentina, the player’s primary concern generally focused on funds, and securing some loans to stay financially afloat for the rest of the tournament.
“We went over with an Irish mentality to go over and give it everything and see what happens,” said Crowe.
“But I remember we ran out of money after the group stages and we had to get a loan.”
Hawkins added: “Obviously we didn’t have much money as players – you had your spending money alright – but I remember going ‘Jesus, we’re now here for another couple of weeks now so we’re going to have to ask for a few quid’.”
Money may have been tight but the memories were, and still are, plentiful, and the most cherished memories are often those that were away from the football pitch and in the team hotel, where Noel O’Reilly frequently entertained the squad with his guitar.
“The camaraderie of just having a sing song with Noel O’Reilly, singing Blue Suede Shoes, was just great,” said Crowe, before Hawkins added: “All the other countries in our hotel thought we were mad.
“We’d get a win, we’d sit down, we’d have a sing song and you would have had Noel on the guitar and everyone would just join in. We’d be singing from the top of our voices in the hotel while all the others teams were trying to get to sleep.
“The odd night we had a beer or two. There was a couple of Irish bars we went to so we got involved and the Tyson fight was on one night.
“We were out until all hours of the morning, while all the other countries were tucked away in bed, but they didn’t have the spirit we had.
“And that was all down to Brian and Noel.”
With Brazil, Uruguay and France all booking a spot in the quarter-finals on the first day of the last 16, Ireland took to the Shah Alam Stadium to face a Morocco side that went undefeated in Group A.
The Moroccans had conceded just two goals in their first three group games before the knockout stages, and by the time they met Ireland in the round of 16, they were once again destined for another tight affair, with Niall Inman’s own goal two minutes before half-time cancelling out Neale Fenn’s opener less than 10 minutes earlier.
With Ireland and Morocco locked at 1-1 at half-time and by the end of regulation, Damien Duff announced himself to the Irish public with a superb individual goal in extra-time that saw him pick up the ball on the left wing, square up to Mohamed Kharbouch and nutmeg the midfielder, before picking the ball back up on the other side and slotting it into the bottom right corner to send Ireland through to the quarter-finals.
It was a faint flicker of the sort of individual brilliance that Irish football fans would become accustomed to from Duff over the next 15 years, but at the time, it was a culmination of two factors; his undeniable talent and Kerr’s tactics.
“The build-up play for the two goals against Morocco was just fabulous,” said Kerr.
“There was Neale Fenn’s goal, Dessie Baker’s header in the third place play-off, Mikey Cummins’ two goals, one of them was a set-piece that we had worked on… but when I think of Damien’s two goals, they were breakaway goals, his technical skills just to stick the ball between the fella’s legs and then knock it into the net... it was just brilliant.”
Winger Alan Kirby added: “We’d soak up the pressure, we were under pressure, but I think that’s a general theme with Irish teams.
“It still is to this day. You look at the senior team and they soak up pressure to a certain degree but we were the same over there.
“We’d hit a lot of teams on the counter-attack and obviously that’s where we had Damien.
“For us to have a player with that ability, and that pace, and that skill, and that sense for goal; it was the difference between winning and losing.
“When you have a good team and a good base, which is what we had, we had good solid players, but then when you add that extra player that can just turn a game then that’s all you need.
“Damien doesn’t need me to describe how great he is, but the biggest compliment I can pay him is that I have no doubt that if he wasn’t in the team then we wouldn’t have got as far as we did.”
Duff’s inclusion prior to the tournament had caused some ears to burn in Ireland camp as many of the older players in the squad had heard of this prodigious winger who was two years younger than most of the other members of Kerr’s squad.
The playing group were first introduced to Duff when a quiet, unassuming kid from Ballyboden showed up for training in Limerick and immediately started to turn heads within minutes of stepping out onto the pitch.
“Everyone knew he was a great player, but because he was so much younger, he hadn’t properly broken in and established himself,” said Crowe.
“He came to the training session and he was very quiet. He came in and it did not take him long to impress, just his balance with the ball, he had nothing to him but he would just bounce off you. He was a class player.”
Duff had started just one game for Blackburn the previous season, a 4-2 loss at home to Leicester City on the final day of the 1996/97 season.
The Dubliner was named man of the match, despite the defeat, and he took that confidence from his Premier League debut and brought it with him to Ireland camp a few weeks later.
“Everyone in the whole tournament was two or three years older than me but I guess I must have had an inner steel that not many people would have known about,” said Duff.
“I probably carried that with me throughout my career but it didn’t faze me. It was my first taste of proper success, even though we came third and didn’t win it.
“I wasn’t long in England and I hadn’t won anything with Blackburn. I had won a few DDSL medals in Dublin but it wasn’t a patch on playing for your country and going to a World Cup. It was my first taste of the big time.”
Ireland had some class in Duff, his Blackburn teammate Thomas Morgan and forward Neale Fenn, who was with Tottenham at the time, but what lay ahead of them in Spain and Argentina was a crop of players that would go on to establish themselves as some of the best in European football.
The Spanish had blitzed their way through the tournament with 10 goals from four matches, in what was a perfect sweep of Japan, Costa Rica, Paraguay and Canada, but in the quarter-finals they drew an Ireland side that was quietly confident of their chances despite a perceived gulf in class.
“We had beat Spain in five different competitions over that period and people are saying now that ‘you can’t beat Spain’, well we used to beat Spain regularly,” said Kerr.
“That was a real achievement to beat a Spanish team in the quarter-final of a World Cup in those conditions.
“They were Spanish, hot summer conditions and we beat them by playing good football with small, technical players.”
Trevor Molloy’s second-half penalty in Shah Alam was enough to give Ireland a 1-0 win and set up a semi-final with eventual champions Argentina.
Kerr had been using faxes and clippings from Ireland to illustrate to his players that their achievements were not going unnoticed at home, with RTE deciding to send out a camera crew after the Spanish win to broadcast the Argentinian game live on national television.
The players were steadily aware of how their accomplishments were being received by the public at home, with Hawkins claiming that Galway Bay FM were on to him every day at one stage, but the players were also acutely aware of what Argentina had to offer.
“Everyone was talking about Cambiasso,” said Crowe.
“He was only 16 at the time. He was probably the youngest kid at the tournament and he was playing at left-back I think.”
“He was on the left, and believe it or not, he had a big long ponytail at the time,” added Kirby.
“But marking him, or him marking me, whatever way you want to put it… it was probably me marking him, let’s be honest… but that was a big highlight for me.”
“I remember we were at the hotel one night and Brazil were out on the balconies next to us and they were after tanking some team [Belgium] 10-0 and we were like ‘lads we’re going to get a tanking here at some stage’,” said Hawkins.
“Argentina were tanking teams but in fairness we got out of the game 1-0 and we had chances ourselves.
“We had nothing to lose and we knew we were getting another game. It was a roasting hot day. I had a chance at the end with a corner, Tommy [Morgan] could have scored, Alan Kirby had a chance, and on a different day we could have went to the final.”
Kirby may have come up empty handed on the pitch but he was not going to be caught out twice when the match was finished.
With Cambiasso regarded as one of the brightest prospects at the entire tournament, Kirby took the opportunity to swap jerseys with the future Champions League winner, or at least that’s what he thought.
“I remember asking him for his jersey and he said ‘ohh back at the hotel’.”
“I went back to the hotel and I had my special jersey, and I had the name on the back and the number and everything, which I would have treasured, I probably would have just worn it anyway.
“But I went to go swap it with Cambiasso, like this was what I was going to give away, and he says ‘come down to the room’, and he tried to give me this white round neck t-shirt and I was like ‘forget it pal!’
“You’re not getting my jersey for that! But having known it was Cambiasso, and what he would turn out to do, I probably would have taken it even with the sweat pouring out of it.”
Kirby kept his jersey but lost his place in the side to Aidan Lynch, who received his first start of the tournament for the third-place play-off with Ghana.
Ireland were beaten 2-1 by an athletic and physically imposing Ghanaian side in the group stages, but Kerr was determined not to leave the competition empty handed.
“People like Noel O’Reilly and I had been working really hard in the preparation for this tournament,” said Kerr.
“We put a lot of work into player identification, selection, personnel and the tactics, and I knew that that could bring us a long way.
“I knew the level of the tournament would have been superior to anything the players would have had before but I was still confident we could do well.
“But the relief of the final whistle when we beat Ghana and we were actually achieving a medal at the World Cup was something.
“I always had that thing of ‘don’t talk to me about it unless you come back with medals’.
“Sometimes I wouldn’t say it, but I had it in my head, and I kept that going and had that idea in my head that we should achieve things.”
Kerr would achieve further success winning the UEFA Under-16 European Championships and the UEFA Under-18 European Championships the following year, but outside of those unprecedented successes, it’s been an otherwise underwhelming period for underage football in Ireland.
The U18’s would finish in fourth place for the 1999 European championship in Sweden, while the U19’s age group that replaced the U18’s age group in 2002, have qualified for just two tournaments since FIFA’s transition to U19 tournaments; the 2002 UEFA European Under-19 Championship in Norway and the 2011 UEFA European Under-19 Championship in Romania.
Ireland have also yet to qualify for a UEFA European Under-21 Championship, failing to appear at a single tournament from 15 attempts, while at U17 level, the national side have qualified for the UEFA European Under-17 Championship just four times in the last 18 years.
It leaves the 1997 squad in some rare company by comparison, and as Kerr noted in his opening address, the 1997 squad are the only team of Irish footballers that can ever say that they own a World Cup medal.
And they still do by the way, as Duff told me in a quiet corridor in the Gresham.
“I don’t have anything on my wall, my wife won’t let me, but my 1997/98 medal is still there.
“I’ve won a couple of Premier League medals but they’re in some drawer somewhere else.
“I’m not one to reminisce and talk about it, and I don’t have anything on my wall at home, but the one thing I do have is my Malaysia 97’ medal which I’m still very proud of.”
As they all are.