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‘Brian always believed in us. We slowly started to believe in him as the tournament went on’

Colin Hawkins recalls his memories of the 1997 FIFA U20 World Cup.

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IN THEIR WORDS and in their eyes you can still sense the level of solemn respect Brian Kerr commands from his players 20 years on.

It is the first gathering of the squad from the 1997 U20 World Cup. Better known as the only Irish football team ever to win World Cup medals, Kerr says giddily, as he welcomes all comers to the Gresham Hotel on O’Connell Street.

Further enquiry confirms both these facts to be true: this is the only Irish team to have secured World Cup winners’ medals and this is the first and only time the squad has ever met up together since going their separate ways in Dublin Airport following their return from Malaysia.

It was a heroes’ welcome, recalls defender Colin Hawkins.

His parents told him they would see him back at home in Galway after he had touched down in Dublin. What they had failed to tell him was of the reception that awaited the 19-year-old in Terminal One.

“It was unbelievable. My family had said to me ‘yeah we’ll see you when you get back’,” he tells The42 ”It would have been dark when we got off the plane because it was late at night, but I could just make out all of my family there at the airport..

They didn’t tell me they were going to be there. They said they would see me when I got home and we would have a couple of drinks in the house. I thought ‘grand’, and then when I got off it felt like the whole of my estate was there with my family and everyone else’s family.”

Colin Hawkins Republic of Ireland Under-21 27/4/1999 Hawkins in an Ireland shirt. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Hawkins played in all seven of Ireland’s games in Malaysia. An opening day defeat to Ghana did not prove fatal, as Kerr’s side would go on to defeat the United States and draw with China to reach the knockout stages.

Wins over Morocco and then Spain in the quarter-finals set up a semi-final date with holders Argentina, managed by current Colombia manager José Pékerman. It would prove a step too far however, with Bernardo Romeo’s second-half winner bringing the curtain down on the Boys of Summer’s dream.

But not before an encore. Ireland regrouped to put the demons of their opening day defeat to bed by beating Ghana in the third-place play off, thanks to a 33rd-minute winner from a stylish but relatively unknown winger called Damien Duff, who’d turned 18 years old just months before.

Hawkins’ father was there every step of the way and even travelled to Malaysia to support his son. But it was only upon arrival back in Ireland that it really hit home what the side had achieved.

“When you saw people at the airport who didn’t have any direct ties to the squad — that’s when we realised how big it was,” says Hawkins.

“I think we were in our own little bubble over there where we realised that we were doing well and achieving good things.

“But we didn’t have all of the fans around us because we were on the other side of the world. It wasn’t like it was somewhere in Europe where we might have had loads of Irish fans travelling over.”

Almost like when they say you missed Italia ’90 if you weren’t in Dublin?

“Yeah,” says Hawkins.  ”I think if you really wanted to feel the impact of the tournament you would nearly have wanted to be in the local area near one of the lads’ homes. I’m sure people in the estate where I grew up were having a great time — I came back and they were having street parties!”

We knew we were doing well but we didn’t realise until we came back and saw people at the airport and the next day with the open-top bus tour. Then it really hit home of how big it was for everyone else. We were just focussed on the tournament.”

There was even an open-top bus tour back in Galway for Hawkins, so massive was his achievement both as part of the team and through individual performances anchoring defence. An utterly modest persona is reminiscent of his selfless and determined performances in central defence.

Tipped by many to be a mainstay in Ireland’s backline in the years that followed Malaysia, Hawkins would, like so many of his 1997 team-mates, never represent their country at senior level.

There are 102 caps in this room,” Kerr had said at the beginning of the reunion.
“I think the spare two belong to you,” he joked pointing a finger at Glen Crowe.

Aside from Duff, who would collect a century of caps, Crowe was the only other player from the 18-man squad to pull on the green jersey at senior level.

Hawkins went on to achieve untold success in the League of Ireland, joining Kerr’s former club St Patrick’s Athletic shortly after the tournament and picking up back-to-back Premier Division titles in 1998 and 1999.

Screen Shot 2017-06-13 at 13.26.59 Hawkins tackles former Dublin inter-county footballer Jason Sherlock playing for UCD in 1997.

He would secure two more league winners’ medals, one at Bohemians in 2003 and another at Shelbourne in 2006, admitting that what Ireland achieved in 1997 offered a platform on which to build his career.

I think it was an important first step in my career. It instilled a belief in me that you can go on and do great things in football and play at a high level.”

Described by many as an unsung hero of ’97, he is modest in his assessment of his own performances where others are quick to sing his praises.

“I thought I did alright,” he says.

“I didn’t score in the tournament, so I didn’t contribute in that way but I’d like to think I worked hard and helped from a defensive point of view.

“Trevor Molloy scored, Dessie Baker scored, Neale Fenn scored. So I couldn’t have any complaints of why I wasn’t playing, because I was struggling with the heat and wasn’t scoring like the other lads in the early games.

Brian Kerr and his Youth Team 20/8/1997 The 1997 side are presented to Lansdowne Road before Ireland's World Cup qualifier against Lithuania. Source: ©INPHO

“But I was happy with the way I was used, Brian was clever in the way that he used me. He knew that I was struggling with the heat.”

Those boiling conditions of 30 degree afternoon heat took its toll on Hawkins more than most, who admits he’d falter even in mild sunshine when playing.

Tales are told of how Kerr had trained his players in Limerick in sweaty saunas while wearing zipped up jackets in order to to replicate the humid climate that was to come in south-east Asia. But it could not prepare the players entirely.

“It was psychologically draining,” says Hawkins of the Malaysian heat. “Like having something heavy on your chest.

“I was probably the one player who struggled most with the heat. If it’s eight degrees and sunny I’ll still struggle. If it’s cloudy and 20 degrees I might be alright. It was something that I wasn’t used to and something that I had never experienced before.

It was difficult. I’m sure the South American teams loved it because they are used to the sun and the heat. I don’t think anyone would have struggled as much as I did, but you go out and football is football.”

Alongside Dave Worrell, Hawkins forged a partnership which solidified Ireland’s defensive shape, offering an anchor for players like Micky Cummins at right back to aid Trevor Molloy and Damien Duff in attack.

One instance of his defensive awareness saw Hawkins clear the ball off the line heroically against Spain when Ireland held a tight 1-0 lead in the quarter-finals, with goalkeeper Derek O’Connor later praising the defender for his quick thinking.

They put a lot of pressure on for the last 20/25 minutes”, said O’Connor. “I had one or two saves to make. I should’ve actually held onto one – I blame myself – but the defenders were brilliant. Colin Hawkins got back on the line and cleared it. So he really saved me.

“We’d do anything for each other on the pitch. That’s the team spirit we had.”

giphy Hawkins' goal line clearance against Spain in the quarter-finals.

Hawkins repeatedly makes time to single out the managerial partnership of Kerr and Noel O’Reilly. They were a duo which every single player then and now states as the reason why the team achieved the success it did 20 years ago.

Sending a team to an international tournament was no easy feat. The expectation that Ireland would suffer bruising defeats against world football’s top young teams meant optimism was not in high supply outside the camp.

But it was Kerr and O’Reilly, Hawkins says, who transmitted an inspiring message: there was no logical reason why Ireland could not compete. With the right preparation, game-plan and tactical setup, nothing could hold them back.

With expectations so low as underdogs, they had absolutely nothing to lose.

“Brian and Noel instilled in us the idea that we weren’t just there, like the old cliche, to just make up the numbers”, he says.

“We were here to do the best that we can and see how far that took us — which it turns out was the third place play-off.

“Brian managed it well. We were there for a month and there were only 18 players, so it’s not like you had a 23 man squad and you could chop and change the whole lot. And you also want to keep some continuity in the team when you’re winning games as well.

“You don’t want to take players out when they are doing well and getting you wins. I think Brian and Noel managed the squad well considering the size for the six or seven games. That number of games in the space of a month is very difficult.”

I think the management did a great job in keeping us grounded. We put a lot of energy into the games but we also had evenings off and the next day our focus would turn to who we were playing and how we would be playing.

“When we got out of the group the focus was always only on the next game and preparing for that game.

“Brian knows football and he knows how to manage players in situations. He instilled a belief in us that we can achieve something here. He always believed in us and I guess we slowly started to believe in him more and more as the tournament went on.

Colin Hawkins/Trevor Molloy/Ian Gilzean 13/8/1999 Hawkins alongside Trevor Molloy (right) playing for St. Patrick's Athletic in 1999. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Before Malaysia, Brian would have been around the League of Ireland for a long time. You don’t coach at that level and not be a motivator, it’s something that he was born with.

“You go out and do the best you can but he made us realise that if we keep all of these games tight we were in with a chance.”

But some of the team’s fondest memories are off the pitch too. Kerr recognised the need for his players to enjoy themselves when away from the training pitch and gave them a degree of freedom to relax, bond and switch their minds off.

“We would have all been hanging around the same meeting rooms having games of cards. Noel O’Reilly used to love pulling out the guitar and having a bit of a sing-song after games.

After a few of the games we would be invited back to an Irish bar and would have had Irish stew, a sing-song and a pint of Guinness. It wouldn’t have been a drinking session, more of a get-together to re-group after a good result and prepare for the next game.

Brian Kerr, manager. 1/7/1997 Brian Kerr. Source: © INPHO/Patrick Bolger

“Ireland is such a small country. We would have all been growing up playing against one another at schoolboy football or in the Kennedy Cup. So we all would have known each other and because of that we all got on so well.

There were no airs or graces, no-one thought they were better than what they were. We all just went out and worked hard for the team.”

True to form Hawkins is reluctant to talk about his own outstanding performances. Alongside Duff, Mickey Cummins, Thomas Morgan and Robbie Ryan he was an integral but unsung cog in the machine that was the Republic of Ireland in Malaysia.

But, as he himself admits, it was never about individuals.

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