Tuesday 21 January 2020

'I'm a caveman. It's the death of football, phones and all that s**te' - Remembering a golden era of Irish football

Only 18 Irishmen have ever won World Cup medals. Twenty years after driving down O'Connell Street on an open-topped bus, the boys of '97 were reunited in the Gresham Hotel. This is their story.

Noel O'Reilly plays the guitar in Malaysia
Noel O'Reilly plays the guitar in Malaysia
Brian Kerr has magic memories.
David Kelly

David Kelly

"Don't book your holidays yet, we aim to be there on the last day." - Official FAI squad invitation to 18-man squad written by manager Brian Kerr and assistant, the late Noel O'Reilly.

Derek O'Connor: Fenny scored against Morocco but we wondered why he didn't celebrate. Turns out he'd booked a holiday two days later. He was sickened.

Neale Fenn: I did have holidays booked but that wasn't the reason I didn't celebrate. I was too tired chasing Derek's goal-kicks all over the place! And the heat was ferocious.

Damien Duff: I remember someone showing me a clip, slagging me I guess, talking about the letter on some show in '97 - I sounded like a little crackhead or something. But it planted a seed.

Brian Kerr: We made them wear the full tracksuits, the jumper and raincoat at our Limerick training camp. The whole lot. We even put them in plastic bags. I brought them to the sauna once in raincoats. That was part of that process of getting them used to the high humidity and high temperatures. That paid off with the style we played.

Niall Inman: I can still feel that intensity now. Stepping off the plane into a heated oven. The humidity. And we have to play in this!

Ireland players at Under-20 World Cup in Malaysia
Ireland players at Under-20 World Cup in Malaysia

Dr Conal Hooper: The first place we went six had gastroenteritis. Derek was on intravenous fluids in hospital it was so bad.

Fenn: The food got better but 'Oco' ate twice as much as everyone else which didn't help him!

Duff: It was 35° all the time.

Paul Whelan: Noel and Brian helped take the heat off... They told us we could compete with anyone.

Kerr: We lost a lot of players. David Connolly, Kevin Kilbane, Ian Harte, Richard Dunne, Ross Darcy, Alan Mahon, Simon Webb, Lee Boylan. Alan Maybury…

Trevor Molloy: I couldn't believe it when I got the call. A young fella from Sheriff Street going to the World Cup! Mad stuff.

Ireland players at Under-20 World Cup in Malaysia
Ireland players at Under-20 World Cup in Malaysia

Kerr: I had the experience of being with Liam Tuohy in the World Cup in '85 and the European semis so I knew the very high standard. I was always confident in my own ability and working with Noel that we could pull stuff out of teams. I knew that with a certain style of play, some organisation, good information and a good tactical plan that we had a chance.

David Whittle: We weren't all at the same level. Duffer was always going to do well.

Duff: It was grand. I was always quiet, maybe there was a inner steel, it didn't bother me. Tommy was like me second da or granddad over in Blackburn. So he always looked after me.

Thomas Morgan: Think of all the other players in that tournament. Michael Owen. Emile Heskey. Carragher. Cambiasso. Walter Samuel. Riquelme. Trezeguet. Henry. David Silva. Jaysus wept!

Inman: We achieved something which was impossible really if you think Damien was the only one who really forged a top-class professional career afterwards.

Fenn: I'd already made my debut for Spurs. I'm thinking, 'This is it. This is my whole life. Matches for Tottenham'. However...It was a slow process. It didn't end straight away. Football is like that. All through your career, others are better than you and you are better than others. For one month, we were all for one.

O'Connor: I realised after game one; Ghana were the world champions in our age group but only snuck past us 2-1. I thought nobody is going to hammer us here.

Ireland players at Under-20 World Cup in Malaysia
Ireland players at Under-20 World Cup in Malaysia

Whittle: It built a momentum. The further it went, the more it seemed like we were doing something. The big thing is how much fun we had in between games.

Duff: You can have your videos and whiteboards and tactics and whatever, but I don't think you can ever let go of that side of it is as well, that you can have a get-together, a sing-song and a beer, and what it does for a team. Sadly, there's not a lot of that left in the game now.

Whittle: We all got on well. We had a few drinks between matches which wouldn't have normally happened. Noel would get the guitar out.

Whelan: Derek would bring out his brother Sylvest!

Morgan: I just remember we got these blue Umbro shoes, they were like blue suede shoes, they were absolutely minging and we were wearing these things with the lovely suits we got from Penneys. But Noel could see the lads always talking about the shoes and this particular night he had us in front of EuroSport with our feet in the air, singing 'Blue Suede Shoes'.

Kerr: One day Thomas said, 'Come on, just 10 minutes more each way' but I just said to keep it for the match. Noel sat down on the steps of the little dressing room, sang songs with the players. And that was the training session.

Ireland players at Under-20 World Cup in Malaysia
Ireland players at Under-20 World Cup in Malaysia

Hooper: He was a male mother hen. He just brought it all together, on and off the field. Even the Yanks and the Ghanains would join. He just relaxed everyone. He and Brian were so close. Larger than life. But a very astute coach.

Duff: I'm a caveman. It's the death of football, phones and all that s**te. We were lucky, I guess, because there was none of that. We were just in a bubble over there. The sport has become mega-professional but after each game we were still able to have a few beers and a sing-song whether we won, drew or lost.

Hooper: The night before we played Morocco, Duffer was in bed with a temperature of over 100 degrees. I didn't think he had a prayer. I earned me medal that night. Sponging him down, dosing him with disprin. Myself and Ciarán Murray (current Ireland physio and a Monaghan AllStar in 1985) went for a walk with him at lunchtime. Then a little jog. Then he started kicking the ball. 'Ah, I'll be alright lads.' He scored the winning golden goal, the first ever in a knock-out game. That was Duffer.

Morgan: We were unlucky not to win the whole thing.

Duff: I can't let it go! We could have got a goal, nicked it and went to the final, but it's all ifs, buts and maybes.

FIFA Technical Review: This was the Irish Association's greatest triumph in its long history, and they can be proud of this reward for their efforts at developing youth football. They did not punt long balls up to the forwards, but tried to pass their way into promising positions. In view of the climatic conditions, Kerr had schooled his youngsters in these tactics. The ball and not the player should be doing the work.

Duff: Maybe we started the ball rolling. Brian and Noel won two Euros the next year.

Robbie Ryan: As a kid, you wonder if you're good enough but now I did. I went back into training almost the next day and straight into the first team at Huddersfield. It felt like I was an adult now. I was scared. And I was tired, I needed a break. It didn't work out. I got down after it, being told I wasn't wanted. You're living away from home. It was an intense time. I was on cloud nine in a World Cup with people watching me on TV, now I'm on cloud one watching TV every day. It probably took me six months to sort myself out. It was then I moved to Millwall. I had a good career. Millwall reminded me of this team. I marked Ronaldo out of the 2004 FA Cup Final and I'm still interviewed about that. I had a nice career. I'm a cable linesman on the London Undergound now. I discharge the electricity around the tracks when it's needed. I work nights. It's very hot. Not as hot as Malaysia…

Inman: I retired at 24 with a really bad ankle injury. Went back to college in Cambridge - not at Cambridge! Got a diploma in construction, I always liked designing, then worked in architectural practice until 31. I became a lecturer at Cambridge Regional College and been there ever since.

Bernard O'Byrne (FAI general secretary at the time): The team didn't get proper recognition. Did they get caps? And if they didn't then, why not since? Is there any memorabilia in Abbotstown? I'm not grinding an axe but these guys won a bronze medal in a World Cup during a golden chapter for Irish football. They should be remembered and honoured.

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