Famous boys of ‘97 forged a special bond after bronze heroics at U20 World Championships

Damien Duff and Brian Kerr at the 20th anniversary. Picture : Lorraine O'Sullivan

You heard them before you saw them.

A garbled mass of excitable conversations sprinkled with deep laughter as they made their way through the lobby of the Gresham Hotel, down the stairs and towards the Trinity conference room nestled in a corner of the lower ground floor.

It sounded either like a stag party that had made a disastrous wrong turn or, as we had been promised, the squad of Republic of Ireland players who had shocked a nation 20 years ago when finishing third at the U20 World Championships in Malaysia under Brian Kerr.

In they walked, one by one, the boys of ’97.

Some are bald now, some grey but all in pretty good nick. Only John Burns was missing and he was due to turn up later on the orders of his dad who, shortly before he passed away this week, insisted he should make an appearance.

An astonishing turnout by a special team.

Kerr instigated the reunion, bringing the squad he managed back together for the first time since that tournament and its aftermath when all bar one - Neale Fenn’s return trip ended in London - were paraded down O’Connell Street and up to government buildings in an open top bus.

Thomas Morgan was captain. Released by Blackburn Rovers shortly before the tournament, he had grown up just around the corner from the country’s main thoroughfare, on Sean McDermott Street, so that jaunt to see the Taoiseach of the day, Bertie Ahern, remains vivid.

“I remember the bus on O’Connell Street. And I remember back to 1990 when I was in the water on the Anna Livia (monument). Coming down that day, it’s fantastic looking back. I’m an inner-city person. People still remind you of stuff, I’m very proud.”

Their achievement 20 years ago loses nothing in hindsight. Quite the opposite.

France oozed class that year. Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Nicolas Anelka up front. Willy Sagnol, Mikael Silvestre and William Gallas at the back. They only made it as far as the quarter-final where Uruguay did them on penalties.

England brought Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher, Danny Murphy, Matthew Upson, John Macken, Kieran Dyer and Jason Euell. An Argentina side boasting Juan Roman Riquelme, Esteban Cambiasso, Walter Samuel and Pablo Aimar saw them out in the round of 16.

A young Damien Duff - sounding “like a little crackhead”, as he put it yesterday - had given an interview before Ireland’s departure explaining how Kerr had sent out a letter ordering the players not to book any holidays because they would be hanging around until the end.

They were good as his word.

An opening loss to Ghana didn’t bode well, but a 2-1 win against China and a draw with the USA earned a shot at Morocco in the round of 16. Duff ended that courtesy of the first ever golden goal. Spain were seen off with one strike and, after a 1-0 loss to Argentina in the semis, Ghana were pipped for third.

How unlikely was it? Where to start?

Kerr had applied for the youths job almost on a whim and on the back of a win for St Patrick’s Athletic over Shamrock Rovers. His application was a handwritten note shoved in the letterbox at Merrion Square after midnight on deadline day.

Six months later and he was in the University of Limerick preparing for Malaysia with the U20s but among the players unavailable to travel - wait for this - were Ian Harte, Kevin Kilbane, David Connolly, Alan Maybury, Alan Mahon and Simon Webb.

Kerr had served alongside Liam Tuohy in the 1980s when Ireland reached European and World finals at underage levels and, along with the now sadly departed Noel O’Reilly, he set about acclimatising his 18 players for the sweltering heat in southeast Asia.

The weather in Limerick for the training camp was, as luck would have it, glorious and the players training suffered in tracksuits, woollen training tops, raincoats and plastic bags. “That reminds me,” says Kerr, “I brought them to the sauna one time in raincoats.”

If that sounds basic then there was method behind it.

The late Pat Duffy, from the National Coaching and Training Centre (NCTC) in Limerick, chipped in with advice. So did Dr Giles Warrington, now a senior lecturer in sport and exercise physiology at the University of Limerick.

Just as considered was the style of play. Ireland had no Niall Quinn or Tony Cascarino type up front, and they couldn’t afford to be chasing down opponents all day in that climate, so a physically small side played the ball on the deck and to feet whenever they could.

Imagine that.

Duff doesn’t sugarcoat it, though. There were lengthy spells when they had to hunker down and dig in but their best performance probably came in the defeat of Spain while the narrow loss to Argentina, who beat Uruguay in the decider, still eats away at the Ballyboden man.

“I can’t let it go! We could have got a goal, nicked it and went to the final.”

Kerr’s rotation policy added to the bonhomie of a tightknit bunch and the atmosphere was mellowed more again by O’Reilly who regularly produced his guitar, sometimes in lieu of a training session. All very different to the modern era of whiteboards, video analysis and smartphones.

“I’m a caveman when it comes to that now,” says Duff. “It’s the death of football: phones and all that shite. We were lucky, I guess, because there was none of that. We were just in a bubble over there. After each game we were still able to have a few beers and a sing-song, whether we won, drew or lost.”

Duff would go on to win two Premier League titles with Chelsea and a hundred senior caps but that U20 medal is the only nod to his career hanging up in his home now and Kerr acknowledges it as the foundation for everything else he achieved in management.

The rest of the squad branched off onto paths of various note. Robbie Ryan marked Cristiano Ronaldo in the 2004 FA Cup final with Millwall while Glen Crowe won two senior caps and was just one of many who would cement his status as a League of Ireland legend.

“One of them got 100 (caps) and one of them got two,” says Kerr. “Does it surprise me? I knew they weren’t exceptional players but I knew they were an exceptional team. Just look at their contributions to League of Ireland.

“In a very good, competitive era with lots of big matches between Shels, Bohs, Rovers, Cork and Pats too. Brilliant achievements. Colin (Hawkins), Thomas (Morgan), Neale (Fenn), Trevor Molloy: lots of medals, lots of cups, lots of goals.”

And still the only Irish players with World Cup medals. “We’ll see if anyone comes along to emulate that,” he smiles.


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