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‘I swapped shirts with Pablo Aimar in the team hotel... he didn't speak English but I think he got the gist of it’

Micky Cummins recalls his memories of the U20 World Cup in 1997.

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PRESIDENT MARY ROBINSON was congratulatory in her assessment of Ireland’s performances at the U20 World Cup in Malaysia.

“It is a wonderful reflection on the young talent which exists in Ireland today and augurs well for the future of Irish soccer,” she said.

However her optimistic prediction for the future was the bitter irony of Brian Kerr’s 1997 squad, who came home from the tournament with bronze medals 20 years ago this month.

Just two players would earn a senior international cap, 100 to Damien Duff and two to Glen Crowe, with just four members of the 18-man squad playing in the Premier League afterwards

Following even more success for Ireland under Kerr, winning both the Uefa U16 and U18 European Championships a year later in 1998, the silverware did not materialise into sustained success at senior level.

Many of the emerging talents that developed in Kerr’s squads of the late 1990s would feature in 2002 when Mick McCarthy led Ireland to the knockout stages of the World Cup, including Richard Dunne, Stephen McPhail and Robbie Keane.

Michael Cummins Republic of Ireland Under-21 27/4/1999 Micky Cummins in 1997. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

But a failure to qualify for the following four international tournaments after Japan and South Korea highlighted a major disappointment. The achievements of Ireland’s youth had not carried through beyond the turn of the century.

Micky Cummins scored two goals in Malaysia and was one of the many squad members who would prove to be immensely successful playing in the lower leagues of English football, making over 500 appearances during stays at Port Vale, Darlington, Rotherham, Grimsby and Gateshead.

Twenty years ago Cummins was an emerging midfield prospect at Middlesbrough and today is in good company alongside his 1997 Ireland team-mates in Dublin.

“There was absolutely no chance that I was going to miss this,” he beams at the squad’s reunion.

Just to see the boys again. Like Brian said after we got off the bus we just dispersed and all went our own way. I’ve come across a couple of the lads through bumping into them and playing against them and that, but it’s fantastic to see everybody.”

Owing to the tactical decision-making of manager Kerr, Cummins was converted from a box-to-box midfielder to an industrious right-back during the tournament, lining out alongside Dave Worrell, Colin Hawkins and Robbie Ryan in defence.

He was a precursor to current Ireland captain Seamus Coleman, says Stephen Finn formerly of the Irish Daily Star.

Mick Cummins was kind of like Seamus Coleman 20 years ahead of time. He had been a fantastic box-to-box midfielder. He had the biggest legs I’d ever seen on a footballer – like Roberto Carlos’s thighs- but Brian turned him into a right-back. What an athlete and scoring asset. Unsung, probably.”

Seamus Coleman celebrates at the final whistle "Mick Cummins was like Seamus Coleman 20 years ahead of time." Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ireland put the disappointment of an opening night defeat to Ghana behind them by beating the United States and drawing with China in the group stages to meet Morocco in the knockout stages.

Cummins scored the opening goal against the US and set up the winner which was registered as an own goal before bagging the equaliser against China which sent Ireland through to the last 16.

“I didn’t play the first game, I was delighted to get the call in the second game,” he recalls.

I went over as a central midfielder and Brian asked if I could do a job at right back. I said yes and, to be honest, he could have played me anywhere. I would have played anywhere for him.

“We did a set piece routine and I scored off a corner against the US. I was involved in the second goal, I think it went down as an own goal. I got the last touch off a set piece again against China.

“As a player I was a box-to-box midfielder. I liked to make late runs, so as a right back I felt comfortable alongside the three other defenders. They were so solid to a point where I felt I had the freedom to attack as a right back.

“You see a lot of full-backs these days are very attacking. As a midfielder I felt that I had an advantage because I had the timing of my runs spot on.”

Ireland defeated Morocco 2-1 after extra time, with an 18-year-old Damien Duff scoring a golden goal in the 97th minute to put Ireland into the quarter-finals.

Next Ireland beat Spain 1-0 in a tight game which highlighted the side’s defensive solidity, in particular the centre back pairing of Hawkins and Worrell.

To play 4-3-3 in 1997 in a major tournament was probably unheard of,” Cummins says in praise of Kerr.

He admits his disbelief that the 64-year-old continues to be ignored by the FAI in a managerial or coaching position.

He says that the manager’s unshakable belief, motivation, player-management and tactical cuteness all came together meaning Ireland could perform against world football’s best young talent. Not just perform, but succeed too.

Brian Kerr 27/7/1998 "Brian asked if I could do a job at right back. I would have played anywhere for him." Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“It’s not like we were a team of superstars,” says Cummins. “It’s not like seven or eight of us went on to have massive careers in the senior national team. It just goes to show that he had a group of players and he got the best out of them.

“I think it’s a shame that Brian isn’t still involved. I think there has to be a position somewhere within the FAI at some level for him to have that influence again. To bring that level of success and produce the next Damien Duff and give players the chance to develop under his style.

If Brian had time – he had us for a month to six weeks – if he had time and that level of input into a group of lads at a certain age group for a number of years – I’m sure long-term he would be a big success.”

Malaysia 1997, like all major youth tournaments, produced a litany of superstars. Ireland were knocked out at the semi-finals by an Argentina side which featured Pablo Aimar, Juan Román Riquelme and Esteban Cambiasso.

Cummins swapped for Aimar’s shirt, but gave it away.

“Yep I’ve got Pablo Aimar’s shirt,” he laughs. “I gave it to my brother because of the bad memories.

It was strange because it wasn’t after the game. We were in the same hotel and I saw him and knew I had six or seven shirts, so I just got his off him. He didn’t speak any English but I think he got the gist of it.

Argentina v Uraguay, World Youth Championship Final. Pablo Aimar in action for Argentina against Uruguay in the U20 World Cup in 1997. Source: EMPICS Sport

“You look at the players and they’ve done well, but I wouldn’t change what we had as a group. Obviously I would have liked to have been more successful and be financially rewarded.

“But I think how I have been rewarded is in my philosophy and how I coach my kids. So much of that is taken from the group that we had in 1997.

He concedes that the prospect of their achievements being replicated or bettered by another Irish team are unlikely due to the fall of the street footballer.

He says that players like Damien Duff and the rest of the 1997 squad grew up in a bygone era where contact with the ball at one’s feet on the street for hours on end created a familiarity which today’s players lack.

I do think it’s a shame. I’m from Tallaght and you just don’t see kids playing on the streets anymore. When I was growing up you had one ball and 30 lads with one goal with God knows how many hours of football.

download "We had an inner belief. We weren't just there to make up the numbers, not just there to come home after the group."

“You have that contact with the ball throughout the week and are learning different movements. You are learning against big lads and how to cope with the physicality. You are learning to deal with the ball in different conditions.”

Cummins echoes the sentiments of his team-mates when he says it was Kerr and Noel O’Reilly who convinced the squad that they could cause an upset. Going into the competition as underdogs and the lowest rank European side, expectations were low – from the outside at least.

We had an inner belief. We weren’t just there to make up the numbers, not just there to come home after the group. We had a sneaky suspicion that we would do well and I think we definitely achieved what we set out to do.

“We sent ripples across the world with the Irish support and the bunting out on the streets back home and the Kuala Lumpur supporters getting behind us. It was a fantastic time.

Soccer - Carling Cup - Second Round - West Bromwich Albion v Rotherham United - The Hawthorns Cummins in action for Rotherham United against West Brom in the 2009 Carling Cup. Source: EMPICS Sport

“I think with the 20-year career I’ve had, it’s sort of moulded me into the type of player I did become, especially in terms of my attitude because of that inner belief that was instilled by Brian.

“I think I would have had a different career and my pathway could have went a different way had it not been for that tournament.

When you get the call to meet up for the week of conditioning training in Limerick – we got a sense then. At the end of that week Brian said to us, ‘Lads, don’t book any holidays for the summer’. He saw it. He saw that potential and I think we did fulfill it.

“Will it be achieved again? Possibly. But I think you’ll go far to find a group like the one that was assembled along with everything else.

“We were all street footballers. You’ll never go back to that era.”

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