John Egan vividly recalls when the penny dropped, the enormity of their achievement hitting home.
Three goals up in the final qualifier against Italy, team-mate John O’Sullivan glanced over his shoulder to his captain.
“John, we’ve f***king done it, we’re going to the Euros.”
It was May 2011 and they were indeed heading for the U19 finals two months later, the first Ireland team to qualify for nine years.
Italy weren’t, and neither were France, Germany, England, Portugal, or the Netherlands. Paul Doolin’s Ireland were one of only seven qualifiers joining hosts Romania at the showpiece. Of all Uefa’s competitions, underage or senior, the U19s remains the most difficult to reach.
Navigating their group was the next obstacle Ireland had to face.
Awaiting them in the semi-final were one of the great Spanish teams, laced with Dani Carvajal, captain Pablo Sarabia, Álvaro Morata, and a 17-year-old Gerard Deulofeu.
“A step too far,” reflects Egan, exactly a decade on from their summer odyssey.
“But we were one of the best four teams in Europe and we had the time of our lives. It’s still one of my best football memories.
“Even within the current senior squad, there’s a bit of craic about our age group. We’re known as Ireland’s Class of ’92, the year we were born.”
Yet not all that generation made it to the finals.
As can occur at a major tournament, a fallout clouded Ireland’s build-up.
And, nine years after Saipan, it was once again the absence of the team’s captain from Manchester United causing the controversy.
Doolin was appointed to the U19 post just a fortnight before the first phase of qualifiers in October 2010.
The short notice for a trip to Bulgaria wasn’t the only problem he faced, for the players and staff were aggrieved at the sacking by the FAI of his predecessor, the late Sean McCaffrey, after allowing him to oversee the opening pair of friendlies against Ukraine.
A bond had developed from his time as U17 coach and, with the guidance of McCaffrey’s assistant Joe Boyle, Doolin stuck with the vast majority of players for the trip to the Black Sea.
They duly delivered, beating Luxembourg 5-0 and Bulgaria 2-1 to seal their passage to the elite round, with the final match against Serbia to spare.
Robbie Brady, the team’s captain, ran the show, scoring three goals, prompting a visit to the Ireland dining room by the great Lothar Matthäus.
The German was in charge in Bulgaria’s senior squad and had watched the Manchester United playmaker destroy his younger cast earlier that day.
“He [Brady] will go far,” Matthäus declared to his audience sitting in silence and awe.
That view was shared by Doolin, who’d observed with interest the performances of players both on and off the pitch.
For the sterner tests coming later in the campaign, the group decider against Serbia was a better barometer.
Ireland lost 1-0, and Doolin had no complaints, noting the physical supremacy of the victors.
Players soon realised organisation and fitness were the hallmarks of his demands. More importantly, discipline underpinned his mantra.
Some players on the trip recall being woken by the noise of team-mates engaging in a water pistol fight along the hotel corridor.
Innocuous as it may be for teenagers, such antics within a supposed professional set-up were frowned upon.
“Maybe a few lads underestimated Paul,” said Jacko Smith, the squad’s kitman.
“They were coming from English Premier League set-ups to be managed by someone from the League of Ireland.
“But Paul had won five doubles as a player and brought Drogheda United to within the width of a post of reaching a play-off for the Champions League group stages.
“He didn’t mind some fun, but wouldn’t tolerate messing.”
By the time Ireland arrived in Bucharest nine months later for the finals, only five of the 18-man squad had survived.
While footballing ability had its place, so did attitude, with Doolin later admitting he deemed the behaviour of some in Bulgaria to have been “poor”.
Gradually, over the course of friendlies in Croatia and Cyprus over the spring, Doolin settled on his squad for the elite qualifiers in May.
Although he was learning about his options on the job, all the players quickly discovered the deal.
That was typified upon them reporting into a London hotel on the eve of their flight to Cyprus.
“This was April and we were heading to Ayia Napa, so it was a surprise when we rocked up to see Paul had cleared out the hall for bleep tests,” Egan says.
“He was big into setting standards. Professionalism was becoming a bigger thing then, with diets and fitness work around international camps. Slacking off wasn’t an option.”
If that was the view inside the set-up, derision formed part of the external mutterings.
Shane Duffy wasn’t selected by Doolin after the initial gathering, and his late father Brian didn’t hold back on the manager’s methods at the time.
“Young lads have had a long, hard season, and he’s making them do bleep tests,” he wrote online. “They’re for pre-season, not the end of the season.”
Conor Murphy didn’t mind. He developed into a main beneficiary of the overhaul, leading the line in the qualifiers and the finals that ensued.
“I’d been completely out of the international frame, winning just one U17 cap before Paul came in,” said the striker.
“It wasn’t even in my mind coming back from Middleborough to play for Bray Wanderers that I’d make the Ireland squad.
“But, between my training on the FÁS course and playing in the Premier Division, I was a full-time professional. My confidence was up from scoring goals, and Paul seemed to rate me.
“Then, I scored in the friendly against Croatia and stayed in the team. I was the only home-based player at the finals.
“Paul took no shit, and I think the squad needed that. I remember players questioning why they were dropped, and he was brutally honest with them.”
Murphy scored a crucial opener against Italy, but the roots of the triumph were laid in Matt Doherty’s hotel room 24 hours earlier.
Egan, Doolin’s skipper in place of Brady, who Manchester United refused to release for the qualifiers, assembled the players for music and motivational words.
“It was an Any Given Sunday speech,” explained the captain. “Italy only needed a draw in that final game to qualify, but we had history to make. Other lads had their say too, and it was quite emotional.”
Doolin and his backroom staff were unaware of the summit, yet happy to let Egan lead from the front.
“John had them like men possessed,” said Joe Curry, the team doctor. “That was a top-quality Italian side with the likes of Stephan El Shaarawy, but we battered them.
“The Italians were disgusted, resorting to leg-breaking tackles. Two were sent off near the end, one of whom, Cristiano Biraghi, threw his shirt at the Italian bench.”
Looking on in horror from the stand above in Kolobrzeg was the Italian coaching legend Arigo Sachi.
Next stop for Ireland was the Euros, a stage not seen since the heady days of Brian Kerr’s success.
Consistency of selection meant no room on the plane for Brady nor his Manchester United clubmate Sean McGinty, along with Duffy, despite the trio being available.
Doolin’s barb about only choosing players who wanted to play for Ireland not only rankled, but set him up for a fall if his principled approach backfired.
“If you’re going to fail, you might as well fail your way,” added Smith in the manager’s defence. “But failure was unlikely, given the drive of this staff and squad.”
Stepping up to a major tournament was new for all bar one in the backroom team.
Doctor Curry held a reservoir of recollections from his couple of Nordic Cup wins and U16 Euros with Kerr, although nothing prepared him for the medical matters presented in Romania.
Uefa considered postponing Ireland’s opener against Greece once lightning and thunderstorms engulfed the city.
“Coming into the stadium on the bus, watching the advertising board flying across the pitch in the gale, I thought there was no chance of the game being played.”
Under darkened skies on a summer’s evening, Polish referee Pawel Gill eventually gave the green light and, courtesy of Anthony O’Connor’s brace from Doolin’s rehearsed set-pieces, the green-clad Irish opened with a 2-1 victory.
Back at the communal Intercontinental Hotel that night, Curry was appraised of the perils they’d escaped.
“Spain versus Belgium, playing three miles away from us, had to be abandoned after a player was struck by lightning,” he said.
“The win was great, but getting the players back safe was an even bigger relief to me.
“A few days later, Samir Carruthers was outside the hotel getting pictures taken, only to be attacked by one of the stray dogs. We had to get him to hospital quickly to get him jabbed for tetanus and rabies.
“Then, there was the challenge of avoiding dehydration in temperatures reaching 100 Fahrenheit some days. It was a tournament like no other.”
With two nations progressing from the group, another win three days later against the Czechs would seal a semi-final spot.
Ireland were well in control from O’Sullivan’s early goal, passing the hour mark in the lead and in command, but got hit twice in a couple of minutes.
“That was a real kick in the arse,” confessed Murphy.
“The Czechs went on to reach the final, and had some good players. I was only watching a few of them at the recent Euros, including Tomáš Kalas who was then with Chelsea.”
It marked the first setback of the Doolin era and events at Hull City’s KC Stadium made the heat that bit warmer.
As news broke of Amy Winehouse’s sad passing, another young performer was attracting an English fan club.
Brady’s peach of a goal in a 3-0 friendly win over Liverpool ensured it was his debut, rather than Jordan Henderson’s, that grabbed the headlines.
Doolin and Ireland didn’t waver, concentrating on their final group game against the host nation.
On another sticky night, before a raucous home crowd, Ireland managed to eke out the draw they needed to advance.
“Paul kept repeating that an organised team is a dangerous team, and that was evident against Romania,” said Murphy.
For Ireland’s next task, they’d need more than just that to cause the shock of the year.
Despite their latest mission being completed, Ireland were in no mood to party.
“A couple of Czech players approached us in the games room of the hotel after we’d reached the semis, asking if we’d like to join them out on the town,” reveals Egan. “They knew from the answer that we meant business.”
That Ireland held out for 27 minutes against the Spanish — until Gerard Deulofeu arrowed a rocket into Aaron McCarey’s top corner — was a testament to their endurance, but reality soon bit.
“It was the first of our games at the tournament to be televised live by RTÉ, and I felt a bit embarrassed by the end,” said Egan. “We had a few suspensions — and Spain were by far the best team in Europe — but we should have given them a better game. It was damage limitation.”
Four of the squad — Egan, Doherty, Jeff Hendrick, and Derrick Williams — went on to win senior caps while the two goalkeepers, McCarey and Sean McDermott, have been part of squads without seeing game-time.
“A lot of us went onto the U21s and then seniors, but the main thing is I made lifelong friends that season,” beams Egan. “Anthony O’Connor and I were close from our U15, and I’d still see Anthony Forde a fair bit.”
Murphy quit football last year at the age of 28.
“The fire in me just went,” he says. “I can’t say that I miss football because getting into cross-fitness retains that competitive sporting element in me. Jeff Hendrick and I were friends from our time at St Kevin’s Boys, roomed together in Romania, and I went to visit him when he was at Derby County.
“Yet the only time I’d see some of the lads is when I go to Aviva Stadium as a fan.
“It’s strange watching them, knowing I was part of a squad that played at the Euros, but nobody can ever take that away from us.”
July 20, 2011, Buftea, Bucharest: Ireland 2 (Anthony O’Connor 2, 51) Greece....1 (Giorgos Katidis 5)
IRELAND: McCarey (Wolves); Doherty (Wolves), Egan (Sunderland), O’Connor (Blackburn Rovers), Williams (Aston Villa); Murray (Watford), Carruthers (Aston Villa), O’Sullivan (Blackburn Rovers), Hendrick (Derby County), Forde (Wolves); Murphy (Bray Wanderers).
Subs: Smith (Watford) for Murphy (77), Shaughnessy (Aberdeen) for Williams (80), Ferdinand (Southend United) for O’Sullivan (85).
GREECE: Kapino; Stafylidis, Lagos, Potouridis, Mavrias; Karelis, Marinakis, Rougalas, Fortounis; Diamantakos, Katidis. Subs: Kotsaridis for Diamantakos (46), Bakaesetas for Karelis (54), Kolovos for Marinakis (70 mins),
Referee: Pawel Gill (Poland).
July 23, 2011, Mogosaia, Bucharest: Ireland 1 (John O’Sullivan 10) Czech Republic 2 (Jakub Brabec 69, Patrik Lácha 71)
IRELAND: McCarey; Doherty, Egan, O’Connor, Williams; Murray, Carruthers, O’Sullivan, Hendrick, Forde; Smith (Watford).
Subs: Ferdinand for O’Sullivan (57), Murphy for Smith (64), Knight (unattached) for Murray (76)
CZECH REPUBLIC: Koubek; Hála, Brabec, Kalas, Jeleček; Kadeřábek, Jánoš, Sladk, Krejčí; Skalák, Přikryl. Subs: Lácha for Skalák (46 mins), Kraus for Sladk (55 mins), Polom for Jánoš (77 mins).
Referee: Tamas Bognar (Hungary).
July 26, 2011, Berceni, Bucharest: Ireland 0 Romania 0
IRELAND: McCarey; Doherty, Egan, Shaughnessy, O’Connor; Murray, Carruthers, O’Sullivan, Hendrick, Forde; Murphy.
Subs: Knight for Murray (55), Smith for Murphy (63), Wearen (West Ham United) for Carruthers (73)
ROMANIA: Brănescu; Gugu, Murgogi, Avrămia, Remeş; Năstăsie, Benzar, Stanciu, Amet, Chitoşcă; Roman. Subs: Ilie for Gugu (46 mins), Gavra for Roman (62 mins), Walleth for Chitoşcă (90+2 mins)
Referee: Artyom Kuchin (KAZ).
July 29, 2011: Chianjna, Bucharest:
Ireland 0 Spain 5 (Gerard Deulofeu 27, Pablo Sarabia 40, Juanmi 46, Álvaro Morata 79, 90+2)
IRELAND: McCarey; O’Connor, Egan, Shaughnessy, Williams; Murray, Carruthers, O’Sullivan, Hendrick, Forde; Murphy.
Subs: Smith for Murphy (46), Wearen for Carruthers (62), Knight for Murray (71).
SPAIN: Badia (Espanyol); Carvajal (Real Madrid), Gómez (FC Barcelona), Miquel (Arsenal), Aurtenetxe (Athletico Bilbao); Sarabia (Getafe CF), Álex (Real Madrid), Pardo (Real Sociedad); Deulofeu (FC Barcelona); Álvaro Morata (Real Madrid), Juanmi (Malaga).
Subs: Gallego (Sporting Gijon) for Sarabia (67 mins), González (Atletico Madrid) for Deulofeu (80 mins), Blázquez (Espanyol) for Carvajal (83 mins)
Referee: Clément Turpin (FRA)