Even in European terms, the Republic of Ireland would not be a high-profile football nation. Its national team has qualified for just six major tournaments at senior level, two of which ended in group stage elimination. Its domestic league is certainly among the weakest 33% in Europe, if not the weakest 25%, and it has never had a club in the group stage of the Champions League. Its greatest footballing days tend to be one-off triumphs, although the penalty shoot-out victory over Romania to reach the quarter-finals of their debut World Cup in 1990 was worthy of the raucous hype that followed.
Two decades ago, however, there were green shoots of real optimism in Irish football. After the glorious reign of Jack Charlton, the senior national team was experiencing a transitional period but still making the play-offs in qualification for major tournaments. It was in the underage ranks where the Boys in Green (literally boys in some cases) were making a serious impression. The under-20s finished third at the 1997 World Youth Championship in Malaysia and, with two European tournaments awaiting the following year, there was excited talk of a new golden generation of Irish stars.
The under-16s and under-18s both had high hopes ahead of their respective European finals appearances. The common denominator to both teams, as well as the bronze medallists from Malaysia, was manager Brian Kerr. Irish football fans born in the late 1990s would think of him solely as a brilliantly eccentric TV commentator who unfailingly delivers unique one-liners, but those older than 25 will be familiar with him as the man who instigated a revolution in the Irish national team towards the end of the 20th century.
In April 1998, a talented under-16s side made the short trip to Scotland for the European Championships. They had a hectic group stage schedule, with three matches in just five days, and they drew 0-0 with the tournament hosts in the opener. As expected, Finland were beaten in their second game before a crunch showdown with Spain. A draw would have been enough to take Ireland through; in the end they triumphed 1-0 to end up as comprehensive group winners who hadn’t even conceded a goal going into the knockout stages.
Denmark were next to fall to Kerr’s teenage wonders, going down 2-0 in Stirling, although Portugal were expected to provide a serious test in the semi-finals. Once again, though, Ireland proved they were a side with real quality, triumphing thanks to Shaun Byrne’s second half brace. Italy awaited in Ireland’s first ever major tournament final at any level and, despite keeping five clean sheets on their route to the decider, the Irish remained outsiders.
At St Johnstone’s McDiarmid Park, Ireland drew first blood through Keith Foy’s free kick. Their defence was breached for the first time in the tournament shortly after half-time when Simone Pelanta exploited the chasm between the Irish centre-backs to finish from close range. Parity lasted for all of five minutes as the Italian defence neglected to pick up David McMahon, who was left with a tap-in for what proved to be the winning goal. Ireland could celebrate a momentous triumph on the European stage, albeit one which went virtually unnoticed outside of the Emerald Isle.
Two months later, the under-18s went to Cyprus for their European Championship. Their task seemed far tricker than that of the younger age category, as they were in the same group as a highly-rated England side and only the group winners would progress to the final. The tournament started in dream fashion for the Irish, who thumped Croatia 5-2 in Ayia Napa, with two goals from the hugely promising Liam George, instantly recognisable with his dreadlocks. Their hopes of progression took a real dent, though, after a 1-0 defeat to England in which Alan Smith struck a late winner. However, the final group matchday provided a serious twist. Ireland eased to a 3-0 win over the host nation but the result would only be good enough if England lost to Croatia – which they duly did 3-0. Had the Croats scored two more goals, they would have usurped Ireland at the top of the group.
As it was, the Irish proceeded to the final, where they met a Germany side that scored 11 times in their group and looked fearsome. They had Ireland rightly under the cosh in the first half but passed up some gilt-edged scoring chances and it looked like they would rue those misses when, on 70 minutes, Robbie Keane skipped past two defenders before setting up Alan Quinn for a simple finish. There was late agony, though, as Andreas Gensler struck in the last minute of normal time. With no further goals in extra time, penalties would decide the destination of the trophy.
Alex O’Reilly saved Germany’s first penalty and, after three successful Irish spot kicks, it was over to George to take what was teed up to be the decisive kick. He duly dispatched it and the Irish squad and management exploded in celebration. After decades in the football wilderness, Ireland had now won two European titles in the space of just two months. With Italy and Germany vanquished in the respective finals, you certainly couldn’t accuse them of having victory laid on a plate for them, either. Kerr had worked wonders with the underage setup and it came as little surprise when he was chosen to take charge of the senior side in 2003, a few of the European-winning starlets having made the step-up by then. Unfortunately, he never came close to replicating such glory at the top level, overseeing two unsuccessful qualification campaigns before making way in autumn 2005.
What became of the proud members of those triumphant teams? As ever with underage teams, not all went on to have glittering careers, but several of Ireland’s teenage champions did become stalwarts of the senior national team. From the under-16 side, John O’Shea won multiple Premier League titles and the Champions League with Manchester United. Andy Reid was one of Ireland’s most creative talents in the mid-2000s, playing for Tottenham and Sunderland amongst others. Liam Miller made a sensational breakthrough as youngster with Celtic and earned a move to Manchester United, but tragically he died earlier this year from pancreatic cancer at the very young age of 36. Graham Barrett, Jim Goodwin, Jonathan Douglas, Joe Murphy and John Thompson all won senior Irish caps, while Dessie Baker became a leading marksman in the League of Ireland.
The under-18 side churned out two of the most celebrated footballers in Irish history. The undoubted star was striker Robbie Keane, who went on to become Ireland’s record goalscorer by an emphatic margin. Another icon was defender Richard Dunne, one of the finest centre-backs the country every produced and a national treasure after his Herculean performance against Russia in a European qualifier in 2011. Gary Doherty is a cult hero among Irish fans, notable for being equally adept playing as a striker as a centre-back. Stephen McPhail was in the Leeds squad that reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2001, while Richie Partridge regularly threatened to make a serious breakthrough with Liverpool early in the 21st century but remained a byword for unfulfilled potential. The two Quinns, Barry and Alan, were both capped at senior level.
Those underage triumphs proved to be something of a false dawn, as Ireland qualified for only one of the subsequent six senior tournaments. However, if the chief goal of underage football is to provide bona fide players for the senior side, Kerr’s golden generation did just that. Twenty years on from the jubilant scenes in Scotland and Cyprus, Ireland’s teenage champions of Europe still deserve to be recalled with glee and pride.