Thursday 19 July 2018

When the Irish boys took on the cream of Europe - and won

Ireland's U16 side celebrates after winning the European Championship in 1998
Ireland's U16 side celebrates after winning the European Championship in 1998
Aidan Fitzmaurice

Aidan Fitzmaurice

They were the boys who took on the best in Europe, and won.

Andy Reid, a key player in the Ireland side which 20 years ago won the U16 European Championship title, just weeks before the U18 side achieved the same feat in their age group, admits that the importance of their success took a while to hit home.

"It was only in later years that we became aware of it, at the time we didn't realise how big an achievement it was," says Reid.

"But as time went on it came through to us what a big deal it was, for an Irish team to be champions of Europe, it's something for every player in that squad to be proud of."

Nostalgia was the vibe in Dublin yesterday as the U16 and U18 squads from '98 were in town, honoured by the SSE Airtricity Soccer Writers' Association at their annual awards night in the city.

What happened in 1998 was a truly stunning feat: the first time that any nation won the European U16 and U18 titles in the same year, and in the intervening years, only one country (Spain, 2007), has managed the double.

And they did it the hard way: the U18 side, which produced six senior internationals (Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne, Alan Quinn, Gary Doherty, Barry Quinn, Stephen McPhail) beat Germany in the final, on penalties, in a finals tournament played in Cyprus.

The U16s, who would feed eight men into the senior side (John O'Shea, Andy Reid, Liam Miller, Graham Barrett, Jim Goodwin, Joe Murphy, John Thompson, Jon Douglas), also had a punishing path to success, beating Spain in the group stages, Portugal in the semi-final and Italy in the final, conceding one goals in six games at the finals.

Ireland Under-18 players celebrate after the final whistle after victory over Cyprus
Ireland Under-18 players celebrate after the final whistle after victory over Cyprus

"The Spain game was when we realised that we're not just here to make up the numbers," Reid recalls, after Ireland got the better of a Spanish side which had Iker Casillas in goal.

To beat Spain 1-0 in the final of a major tournament, that gave us so much confidence and self-belief. They were a hell of a side, with some brilliant players. We did what we had to do and we did it well.

"After the match, having beaten Spain 1-0, we were sitting in the changing room thinking, we can give anyone a game here."

After a 2-0 win over Denmark in the quarter-finals, Ireland faced Portugal in the semi-finals. Reid, the youngest member of the Irish squad, starred that day in a 2-0 win. A UEFA  delegate later told Kerr: "This boy Reid, he plays more like the Portuguese than the Portuguese themselves".

Reid recalls the game well. "There was a real edge. Some of the Portugal players were a bit like us, a lot of us had come from the rough patches of Dublin or hard places down the country.

"We knew how to look after ourselves and Portugal had that as well, their lads were from the rough parts of Lisbon so there was an edge, a few naughty challenges," he says.

"Shaun Byrne scored two great goals, he was superb that day."

A large Irish support made it to Perth for the final, where Keith Foy put Ireland in front, Italy equalised but Glasnevin lad David McMahon came up with the winner.

"Once we went 2-1 up I knew we'd win. I saw it in the faces of the lads we had on the pitch and on the bench," says Reid.

We had such a bond, I knew every player there would stand up and be counted. I can think of maybe three or four moments in my career where I felt like that, that I looked at the players around me and felt that way. It doesn't happen that often but it happened with that team in ‘98."

Reid credits the late Noel O'Reilly, Brian Kerr's assistant, for playing a huge role, not only in the team's success but the players' growth.

"It helped us mature from boyhood into adulthood and we were lucky to have that from both of them," Reid says.

The 36 players across the two squads had varying careers, from 100-cap men (Keane, O'Shea) to players who barely had a senior club career, a puzzle for Reid. "Look back and some of those players should have had better careers," says Reid.

"It's the nature of football that some players progress better than others, some players get a bit of luck, no one can explain why one lad can win dozens of senior caps and another lad never really kicks a ball."

Herald Sport

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