Fourteen years on from the World Cup finals in Japan and Korea, when he scored for Ireland against Saudi Arabia, Gary Breen is still being followed around the place by one of the daftest and most memorable of the Green Army’s all-time greatest hits.
Altogether now: “We all live in a team of Gary Breens, a team of Gary Breens, a team of Gary Breens…”
“The reality is you wouldn’t win many games if you had a team of Gary Breens,” the man himself says with a smile, while on a visit to Dublin to promote a Spar competition which will see a new team of Gary Breens — including the real one — travelling to France to support Martin O’Neill’s men at the Euros.
The very definition of an Irish football cult hero, the former centre-half lived out a boyhood dream at the 2002 World Cup which he had nurtured from an early age growing up in Camden as the son of a father from Kerry and a mother from Clare.
“As a young boy growing up, it wasn’t about FA Cup finals for me, it was just about playing for Ireland,” he says. “That was it. I look back at ’88, and people like Paul McGrath were massive heroes for me. Mick McCarthy, as well. ‘Captain Fantastic’ — I remember reading his book as a young boy.
“Sometimes when you are fortunate to live your dream, the reality is not quite what you thought it would be. If you meet famous people they never quite live up to the billing. But, for me, playing for Ireland did.”
Breen vividly recalls being almost overwhelmed by the personal significance of stepping out onto the pitch for Ireland’s first game — against Cameroon — at those 2002 finals. His thoughts, he says, went back to “every summer holiday and half-term going over and spending time on the farms in Kerry and Clare. You wanted to do your grandparents and your parents proud. It’s not something you want a big, tough centre-half to admit, for sure, but, yeah, it was very emotional.”
Breen concedes it might sound strange coming from someone who speaks with a London accent, but he’s clearly uneasy about the ‘granny rule’ being stretched to breaking point.
“My reference point to anyone of my generation, give or take a couple years here or there, is: in 1988 who were you supporting? If you were supporting England that day then, for me, it doesn’t quite stack up.”
Gary says this even as, in the same breath, he accepts Andy Townsend — a player he “idolised” in the green shirt — once admitted he had indeed been cheering for the boys in white that day in Stuttgart.
“I know Andy well,” he says. “Cas (Tony Cascarino), and all the guys who it can be aimed at — they have been wonderful servants for Ireland, no doubt about it. But I just would like to see international sport protected to keep that specialness about it. I’m mindful when you play for your country it elevates you to a different level and you have to protect that. When we’re seeing people declaring for other countries, in rugby or whatever, you’re losing that.
“Club football gives you the opportunity to do what you want but international football is unique. You have to keep that passion that’s just ingrained in you in terms of playing for your country.”
He is particularly unimpressed by the practice of players turning out for one country at underage level and later switching national allegiance.
“I look at Jack (Grealish) and it’s a difficult decision for him to make as such,” he concedes.
“It wasn’t for me. I would have had opportunities to play for England U21s but I wasn’t interested.
“I remember Damien Richardson, who was my manager at the time with Gillingham, brought me into the office and told me I had the opportunity to play for England U18s. I was so annoyed with him. I said ‘what are you talking about? Don’t you know me?’ Actually, I think he did it to wind me up.
“If you declare for someone and play at U21 level, for me you’ve made your mind up. Everyone says they are young and impressionable, but I would argue that’s the time you make the purest decision. Because you know who you are at 16, before agents and club hierarchies get to you. It’s not a career choice for me.”
His own career highlight was obviously that World Cup in 2002 when he played his part in helping Mick McCarthy’s team get through to the round of 16. But he feels sure it could have been a much more memorable tournament for Ireland had not their titanic tussle with Spain in Suwon ended in shoot-out heartbreak.
“I look back at the World Cup with a lot of regret because I genuinely believe we could have got to the final,” he says. “If we had won the penalty shootout, we would’ve got South Korea in the quarters and Germany in the semis, and we could have been in a really good place at that time.”
And, of course, had they done all, it would have been without the services of Roy Keane. So, after all this time, how does Saipan look now to another one who was there on that red-letter day for Irish sport? “It was a difficult one in terms of the whole scenario,” Breen reflects. “Even now I look back on it and the lads coming out with their books. Sometimes I read the stories and wonder if I was actually there, in terms of the (different) versions. Have I ever been tempted to write a book? No. Obviously people ask me but I just say ‘you had to be there’. I don’t really go into it. It was a real shame because Roy is the best player I ever played with for Ireland.”
Gary Breen has long-term coaching ambitions but, for now, says he’s enjoying media work and, more immediately, is very much looking forward to accompanying his masked look-alikes on their trip to France. (Just don’t call them Team GB, whatever you do). But, not surprisingly, the 42-year-old also wishes he could just roll back the years this summer.
“I would say to those lads (in the squad) who haven’t been to a tournament, that it is so special,” he says. “They will have heard everyone saying that but they won’t realise it until they actually get there.
“I remember walking out to a sea of green and you just suddenly get really emotional. They’ve got it all to look forward to — and I’m very envious.”
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