recalls how Brian Kerr’s kids made Irish football history by lifting the U16 European Championship trophy on this day in 1998.
They were Ireland’s sweet 16s, the little team that could and did, bucking all the odds and overcoming three of the game’s traditional superpowers along the way, to lift the European Championship trophy in Scotland on this day in 1998.
A little team by reputation, perhaps, but one which, under the visionary leadership of manager Brian Kerr and his much-loved right-hand man, the late Noel O’Reilly, had been conditioned to think big.
What has since rightly come to be regarded as a golden age for Irish underage football had dawned the previous year when the newly appointed tag team of Kerr and O’Reilly led an Irish side, which included Damien Duff, Glenn Crowe and current Cork City manager Neale Fenn among others, to a third-place finish in the World Youth Championships in Malaysia.
That not only made the country sit up and take notice but also acted as a timely source of inspiration for the U16 boys in green who would contest the European finals in Scotland the following year, with Kerr able to draw on a stellar rising generation which included such future senior internationals as John O’Shea, Andy Reid, Jonathan Douglas, Graham Barrett and the late Liam Miller.
It’s fair to say, however, that talented though they undoubtedly were, the Irish youngsters could have had little sense of the unprecedented heights they were set to reach in the summer of 1998, especially after an opening game which saw them share a scoreless draw with their Scottish hosts. Not one for the highlights reel, perhaps, but as in any major tournament, the critical goal of avoiding defeat at the first time of asking had been achieved.
With a point safely on the board, Kerr’s kids began to show their true colours in the next game, Andy Reid claiming Ireland’s first goal of the tournament after just four minutes and Graham Barrett adding a second midway through the first half to secure a 2-0 win against Finland.
Then came the first crunch test, a meeting with group favourites Spain, but even with a young ‘keeper by the name of Iker Casillas between their posts, the European aristocrats were unable to prevent Newcastle United’s David McMahon from scoring the decisive goal in a 1-0 win for Ireland which sent shock waves through the tournament – and allowed the victorious players to dare to dream.
"The Spain game was when we realised that we’’re not just here to make up the numbers," Andy Reid later recalled. “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. But 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."
The victory also secured top place in Group C, qualifying Ireland for a quarter-final which saw them eliminate Denmark 2-0 thanks to goals from Barrett and skipper Shaun Byrne.
Then, at the penultimate stage, came another big test, a clash with Portugal, while the Spanish and the Italians contested the other semi-final.
Brian Kerr has spoken about how, in the Irish camp back then, he had wanted to create “a welcoming, calm place with good discipline but also great fun.”
And Keith Foy, who like Andy Reid, had already signed for Nottingham Forest at the time, has since recalled how that enlightened approach helped tip the scales in Ireland’s favour.
“When we reached the semi-finals, I think the other teams got a little bit of a scare. It was us, Portugal, Italy and Spain training in one big area, and instead of practicing free-kicks or whatever, we had a Gaelic football match and the other crowd were looking at us going, ‘What’s going on over there in the Irish camp?’
“It was a good mixture. Nearly every night, Noel O’Reilly would have the guitar out and before we hit the hay we would be up singing for an hour or so. But once you were on the training ground, everything was focused and everyone knew what they had to do. Kerr had us well-organised to make sure we got over the line.”
Which the Irish proceeded to do in some style against Portuguese players who, for all their much-vaunted technical ability, weren’t at all shy about mixing it physically.
"There was a real edge,” Reid recalled two years ago. “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.”
But thanks to a brace from West Ham United’s Shaun Byrne, the Irish prevailed, with the then 15-year-old Reid giving the goal hero a run for his money in the man of the match stakes, an impressed UEFA delegate assuring Brian Kerr afterwards: "This boy Reid, he plays more like the Portuguese than the Portuguese themselves.”
And so it was that, 22 years ago today, on May 8, 1998, Ireland lined-up against Italy in the final of the U16 European Championships in St Johnstone’s home ground, McDiarmid Park, in Perth.
In a tight encounter, the Irish drew first blood, Keith Foy scoring with a superb free kick. Simone Pelanti levelled for the Azzurri but the Irish were not to be denied, David McMahon finishing from close range to score what would prove to be the trophy-clinching goal.
"Once we went 2-1 up I knew we’’d win," Andy Reid has said. "I saw it in the faces of the lads we had on the pitch and on the bench. 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."
Remarkably, it would happen again, just a month later, as Kerr and O’Reilly repeated the same heady success with an U18 side which included such rising stars as Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne, Gary Doherty and Stephen McPhail. And thanks to a famous win on penalties against Germany in the final in Cyprus, it meant Ireland achieved the historic distinction of becoming the first nation to hold the U16 and U18 European titles in the same year.
As for the U16s, they could hardly have done it a harder way. As UEFA’s Technical Director put it to Brian Kerr when it was all over: “When you beat Spain, Portugal and Italy in the one tournament, you are definitely the best in Europe.”
Republic of Ireland U16 v Italy: Joseph Murphy, John Thompson, Ian Rossiter, Keith Foy, John O’’Shea, James Goodwin, Brian O’’Callaghan, Kevin Grogan, Liam Miller, Shaun Byrne (C), David McMahon
Subs: Jonathan Douglas, Desmond Byrne, Brendan McGill, Graham Barrett, David Madden, Andy Reid, David Warren