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Mars bars, diarrhoea, Connect 4 and a once in a lifetime triumph: an oral history of Malaysia '97

Players, staff and journalists recount the finer details of the Republic of Ireland U20s’ historic journey 20 years ago.

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IT STARTED LONG before anyone boarded a flight bound for Malaysia. Yet, it all came down to three weeks in the summer of 1997. Some were curious from the start. For others, they got to that point eventually. It was a long, hard slog but for those immersed in it, the memories are still easily recalled.

Here, to detail the Republic of Ireland’s remarkable Under 20 World Cup campaign two decades ago, players, staff and journalists recall those memories in their own words.

Lineup:

Brian Kerr (manager)

Dessie Baker (midfielder)

Trevor Molloy (striker)

Derek O’Connor (goalkeeper)

Bernard O’Byrne (then CEO of the FAI)

Stephen Finn (then sports journalist with the Irish Daily Star)

Sean Whelan (then Deputy Foreign Editor with RTE)” 

Stephen Finn: In 1996, I’d been in France with the Irish U18s when Spain, England and Italy were in the group. We managed two draws and I remember Dessie Baker scoring a great goal against the Italians. But that team was in a bit of limbo because Maurice Setters had been the manager but he left with Jack Charlton at the end of 1995. So, Maurice Price was in charge in ’96 and Jimmy McDermott was alongside him. As a result of how well we did at that Euro tournament, we qualified for the World Cup the following year.

Dessie Baker: It nearly goes back to the Kennedy Cup. From the 20 players in Malaysia, maybe about 11 were part of that U14 group. The same faces in every photo, really. We obviously always had trials but it normally came down to the usual players: ‘Oco’ (Derek O’Connor), (Stephen) Murphy, Colin Hawkins, Mick Cummins. There was always 10 or 11 guaranteed their spots in the squads all the time.

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In December 1996, Brian Kerr – who had guided St. Patrick’s Athletic to two League of Ireland titles over a ten-year period as manager and who had previously held a coaching position under former Irish underage boss Liam Tuohy – is announced as the new manager and technical director of the Republic of Ireland’s youth teams.  

Bernard O’Byrne: Everything happened within my first 18 months at the FAI so, in fact, Brian Kerr was actually my first appointment in late 1996. He’d long been someone I’d hugely admired, particularly as a St Pat’s fan my whole life. When his application dropped in through the door, I knew who I wanted. I hoped he’d make a difference over two or three years. But within a few months we were at a World Cup.

SF: That was a big news story at the time. It would be like if Stephen Kenny or John Caulfield was announced as coach of an Irish underage side now. People were amazed.

Kerr quickly starts planning for the trip to Malaysia but for various reasons, there are a number of new faces on the periphery of the group.  

SF: There were two big things that happened. Firstly, Fifa changed the age-group. The cut-off point had been something like 1 August or 1 September 1977 as a player’s date of birth. But, Fifa changed it to 1 January. That opened it up for the likes of Neale Fenn, Robbie Ryan, Thomas Morgan. And there were other players able to play too – Kevin Kilbane was eligible, David Connolly too. But Mick McCarthy didn’t seem to want either of them to go, for whatever reason. Brian Kerr had a big battle to get the squad together beforehand.

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 11.20.23 By 1997, Ian Harte was already a senior international so didn't travel to Malaysia. Source: © Billy Stickland\INPHO

Ian Harte had played with the boys at U16 level but missed the Euro tournament through injury. By ’97, he had already been capped at senior level so didn’t travel. So, the squad that went to Malaysia could’ve been even stronger because there were so many good players that could’ve gone but didn’t. Brian had the squad training in Limerick and Alan Mahon – who was a super player and who was in the Tranmere first team at the time – got injured down there. I ended up bringing him back up to Dublin in my car while the team kept training. I dropped him at his ma and da’s house! So, we went over there thinking the worst because we were missing so many.

DB: Alan was top-notch. It was a big loss going over there without him.

SF: The expectation was the lads would give it a good shot but they knew they were up against it. If Brian thought they would go on and do the best Ireland have ever done in a World Cup, fair play to him. Because being honest, I thought getting out of the group would’ve been a remarkably good achievement.

BO’B: There was no awareness that we were going to do as well as we did. There were even mutterings about whether it was a waste of money to send a team all the way across the world. You must remember that in 1996, there was no governmental support and the FAI was in straightened circumstances. There was a big effort to send a team but it wasn’t that they were being sent with any great hope.

BO’B: Brian had huge criticism for including three League of Ireland players in the squad but, once again, he was proved correct. His ability to bring the best out of players, get a system together and get their total commitment to it was proven yet again.

DB: The likes of Trevor Molloy and Glen Crowe were late additions. All these players wanted that jersey more than anything. In the trial matches, the players standing out were those that hadn’t been involved with us before.

Trevor Molloy: I don’t know how Brian Kerr saw me. I didn’t know what was going on, I went and had a trial match up in Drogheda against the UAE. I scored. He was making a decision on the team. I remember sitting in my ma’s in the hallway, just sitting on the stairs waiting for the phone to ring. I got the phone call from him and I remember just jumping up and down roaring crying in front of my ma saying: ‘I’m going, I’m going, I’m going to play for Ireland.’

Ghana v Rep of Ireland (world youth championships third place play off) Source: Matthew Ashton

SF: I got on well with the players. I wasn’t much older than them, really – maybe four or five years. Once they qualified, I said to The Star, ‘Look, Ireland so rarely qualify for World Cups so we should really cover it’. My sports editor at the time – Connie Clinton – said they didn’t have the budget for it so I suggested talking to the Indo and see if they’d be interested in me covering it for them too and they could split the costs. So, they agreed. I was initially supposed to stay for a week and it ended up being closer to a month.

TM: The first day we met up in Clonshaugh for training before the World Cup, Brian told us we’d be in Malaysia for a month and to make sure we brought enough underwear. Some of the players didn’t believe him and had their holidays booked for three weeks later.

In June 1997, just six months after being appointed as manager, Kerr takes his players to Malaysia for a World Cup tournament. They’re drawn in Group C, alongside Ghana, the United States and China.

BO’B: In my experience, having players remember their passports and wondering if they know to turn left or right is something that continues up to the senior squad. So, it was certainly the case with the underage sides too. But in Malaysia – whether it was Shah Alam or Kuching – lads weren’t likely to go missing.

DB: When we’d go out, we’d have a Coke and sing songs. We’d get the guitar out, Noel (O’Reilly) would sing, ‘Oco’ would do a ballad. There was a togetherness. Brian used to tell us to do what we wanted because we were Irish and we should be proud of it. We’d wear Irish jerseys that we had on during games. Because we were proud of it. People talk about iPads now. Or poker. We played Connect 4.

SF: I didn’t have a laptop. There was no internet as such. What I’d do was take a pen and paper, do the interviews, write up my stuff and then start all over again and rewrite – just to make sure what I was giving The Star and The Indo was different. Then I’d ring back to copy takers and they’d be on the headsets, typing away what I was dictating to them. Some people probably didn’t even know I was there because I’d stay up until 4.30 in the morning local time still calling home because of the time difference. I had to wait until a copy taker had arrived or was available so it got to the stage where I was trying to live on European time as much as I could. I was like a ghost. I’m probably the only person who visited such a hot country and never saw the sun. I never got sunburnt or anything.

On 17 June, Kerr’s side take on Ghana in their tournament opener at the Darul Aman Stadium in Alor Setar. 1-0 down at the break, Trevor Molloy draws the sides level shortly after the restart but the Black Stars grab a second midway through the half and hang on for a 2-1 win.  

SF: Physically, it was all a bit alien to them but there are some great stories about the stuff Brian had done with them to get them prepared.

DB: Beforehand, in Limerick, we trained in saunas with rain jackets on us. Just to try and get used to the heat. When we arrived in Malaysia and the doors of the plane opened, I remember thinking, ‘What the fuck is that?’ That was night-time. But it was so warm. The heat hit you like a sun-bed. The humidity. It was so powerful. We just said, ‘How can we play in that?’ The prep he did to get us ready…We say it now – we bet England and France weren’t in saunas with rain jackets doing jumping jacks and press-ups. Those are stories no-one would hear before but an example of the work that had been put in.

Ghana v Rep of Ireland (world youth championships) Source: Matthew Ashton

SF: The players were also good footballers. You had the likes of Thomas Morgan who is a cousin of Wes Hoolahan and while he wouldn’t have Wes’ profile or dribbling skills, he could run a game. Just give him the ball and he could pass all day. He was the heartbeat of the team in terms of controlling the tempo of the match. He’s an example of how Irish guys could play that way but didn’t really get the opportunity to do it. If he had been born in Spain or somewhere like that, he would’ve gone on to have a much more profitable career because he was a lovely footballer.

SF: Ghana were unbelievable athletes. Big, huge kids. They had an incredible record at underage football during the 90s too.

DB: They were like grown men. They were intimidating. Physical, good on the ball, quick – able to run around in that heat with no problem. And up against little skinny Irish bodies? But we played well and should’ve got something out of it.

Soccer - Uruguay - Ghana, World Youth Championship Semi - Final. Source: Matthew Ashton

SF: We were really disappointed not to get at least a draw. But the way they structured the competition, a good third-place would see you through so there wasn’t a sense that we were out of the tournament. There was an understanding that it was early days yet.

BO’B: Heads were a little bit down but when we saw the subsequent performances, there was a bandwagon with no shortage of people wanting to get on it.

Just two days later, the Irish return to action and face the US in a crunch battle. After an opening defeat, it’s imperative they pick up a positive result, which they do — despite some difficult circumstances. 

SF: The food in the first hotel wasn’t great. If it wasn’t for Snickers and Mars bars, some of the players wouldn’t have eaten at all during the tournament. They were petrified of the food. It was a real concern. ‘Oco’ ended up getting sick so Paul Whelan came in as goalkeeper for the US game. I think John Burns got injured in the Ghana game and he was a brilliant player. He had been a key player in that team all the way up. He went on to play with Nottingham Forest’s first team but he pretty much watched the remainder of the tournament on crutches. So, there had to be a bit of a reshuffle.

DB: We were dropping like flies. Between injuries and everything else. We had a dose of food poisoning. Diarrhoea. People were getting sick. I just lived off Mars bars. At the time, I just ate chicken. Plain chicken. That was it. Anytime they’d ask what I wanted in the restaurant, I’d just go, ‘CHICKEN! JUST PLAIN CHICKEN’. And they’d bring me back some fucking rabbit they’d probably just chopped up in the kitchen, I’d say. There was a just a big white lump on my plate. There was about seven or eight lads with diarrhoea. I ended up eating five or six Mars bars a day. ‘Oco’ ended up in hospital and had lost loads of weight during training and games too.

Mick Cummins opens the scoring after just six minutes and they extend the lead later in the half when Ramiro Corrales puts through his own goal. The Americans get one back from the penalty spot but the Irish dig in and see the game out. A 2-1 win and they’re back in business.  

SF: 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’ thighs. But Brian turned him into a right-back. What an athlete and scoring asset. Unsung, probably. But he scored against the Americans. And we were excellent in that game. They had some brilliant players who went onto play for the senior side – the likes of John O’Brien and Ben Olsen – at least six or seven, I think.

Ghana v Rep of Ireland (world youth championships third place play off) Source: Matthew Ashton

DB: I remember the lads coming in at half-time and their jerseys were soaking wet. It had just gone a different colour. It was a stone heavier than it was at kick-off.

BO’B: I remember the way the crowd took to the Irish team. When we beat the United States, they seemed to like that a lot. After that game, we started to have an increasing amount of supporters. The locals really took to us. And by the time of the semis, we were almost being treated like the home side. A lot of that did centre around Damien because he was such an exciting player.

Three days after the US victory, the Irish play their final group game against China. With three points from two games, a defeat isn’t the end of the world as four of the best third-placed teams will also make the knockout round. But, even a single point may ensure a decent Round of 16 match-up. 

DB: A draw favoured us because we knew we could get Morocco. We had a chance to win that game as well. Duffer was outstanding again – one of his best games. He hadn’t been involved with us at younger age-groups. He was only 18 and the rest of us were older. But you could see he was different class.

Rep of Ireland v Ghana (world youth championships 3rd place match) Source: Matthew Ashton

Despite conceding after 11 minutes, Cummins scores his second of the tournament later in the first half and Duff, in particular, shines on the left wing. The Irish see out the remainder of the game and pick up a 1-1 draw.  

SF: Damien Duff’s individual brilliance stood out. He was impressing people like a Messi would, if you were seeing him for the first time. For me, Colin Hawkins and Dave Worrell – the two centre-backs – were immense. I thought Colin was going to be a senior international, no doubt. He remains one of the best centre-backs I’ve ever seen in the League of Ireland. They had an incredible understanding with each other. The funny thing was that Ross D’Arcy would’ve been the standout centre-back at the time but he missed the tournament because of injury and injuries curtailed his career after that too. Worrell had been playing right-back but dropped inside for the tournament, which meant Mick Cummins slotting in on the right.

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Hawkins was a man mountain and a great footballer and Dave could just read the game so well — a bit like Thomas Morgan. If he played on the continent, people would’ve raved about him. Like a typical Italian catenaccio. Even though it was roasting, I don’t remember him ever sweating. And the back four – with Robbie Ryan, who went on to play in an FA Cup final for Millwall, at left-back – was rock solid.

On 25 June, the Irish are in a new stadium in Shah Alam for their Round of 16 battle with Morocco. Qualification means a change of plans. Many of the team are forced to cancel summer holiday plans and, overnight, attention from back home increases dramatically.  

DB: We went over there not thinking we were going to get that far. I remember calling the lads back home to tell them I couldn’t go on the holiday. But they said to me, ‘Dessie, we’re not either. We’re looking to see where we can watch the matches. Everyone’s asking how you’re getting on’. We had banners and flags on either side of my street in Tallaght. We’d all come off the phone and swap stories that night about what was happening back home. It just gave you goose pimples.

SF: I became good friends with a girl in KLM airlines because I had to keep changing my flights. I think I was in with her about four times. I don’t know what the accountants were thinking at The Star and The Indo. Maybe they were afraid to ask me.

BO’B: When we got out of the group after the draw with China and we were drawn to face Morocco, suddenly the phones started to jump. That’s just the way life works. The bandwagon was up and running.

SF: Brian would probably have fancied his chances against anybody in a 1-v-1 situation but there wasn’t anyone looking further down the road. Morocco were probably the favourites for the match – lots of talented players – but we played really well. Trevor Molloy’s confidence grew game-by-game. Neale Fenn was unbelievable too.

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 11.31.13 Neale Fenn in action in 1997. Source: © INPHO/Patrick Bolger

One of the best touch players, hold-up players – like Kenny Dalglish – I’ve ever seen. When you played it into him, it didn’t matter how big you were, you weren’t getting the ball. And in terms of the heat – maybe his lack of pace, which probably cost him at the highest level, wasn’t an issue in Malaysia. Because his thought process was so mature and ahead of everyone else. We could play our way out of trouble. Thomas would keep things ticking over, Alan Kirby had an unbelievable engine, Duffer was taking players on and winning free-kicks left, right and centre, Neale could hold it up and then it was Trevor or Dessie or Glen coming around him so you always had a chance. After a few games, they knew they were good. And that’s when Damien Duff  started to become the player who you just gave the ball to.

TM: Jesus, Duffer was amazing. The best thing about it was he was probably the nicest bloke there. He knew he was special, but he didn’t flaunt it. He was one of the lads. And when you’re looking at someone like that, he gives you inspiration to go out and do your best. He was very shy, but when you have talent like him, you can’t be shy on the football pitch, because people want to give you the ball. So he expressed himself in that way on the football pitch.

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DB: I remember when Fenny scored – thumped one to the top corner – and I looked at one of their players and he just stared at the sky mouthing something. I didn’t need to understand him. I knew he was just saying to himself, ‘That’s class’.  And then when Damien scored…Jesus.

Neale Fenn scores after 35 minutes – brilliantly driving a left-foot strike to the net. But Morocco equalise just before the break when the covering Niall Inman can’t quite clear his lines and inadvertently stabs a low cross to the net. In energy-sapping conditions, both teams shadow-box for the second period before Duff conjures a moment of brilliance in the 97th minute of action. The ‘Golden Goal’ ensures the Irish win and progress to the quarter-finals.  

DB: I’d been taken off. Knackered. It was my first start of the tournament and I found it hard. And I remember watching Duffer in extra-time and he still had so much energy. He used to look tired before he went onto the pitch – he had that laid-back attitude. Sheer class – he knew it but didn’t know it. After scoring, he ran over to the lads to celebrate and I didn’t know how he did it because when I stood up off the bench I nearly got cramp in both my legs.

SF: It was the first Golden Goal I’d seen in real life and you just saw, in that moment, that it was just a case of, ‘Holy God – what a talent we have here’. Myself and the late Brendan McKenna – the FAI press officer at the time – were hugging each other. I think I pulled my t-shirt over my head. It was incredibly emotional.

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BO’B: When the ball was played to Damien Duff it was like what happens sometimes in a stadium – when you get the sense of expectation that something is about to happen.

Ghana v Rep of Ireland (world youth championships third place play off) Source: Matthew Ashton

SF: When he scored, he ran over to the sideline to celebrate. Eddie Cox was the FAI’s commercial manager but he ended up being the kit-man on the trip – bit of a strange one. But Duffer was jumped on by everyone – a massive pile-on. And Eddie is just screaming – ‘Get off him, you’ll smother him’. You had all the excitable, exuberant kids and he’s trying to drag them off. Probably recognising how precious Duffer was!

Another win means more plans have to change. Not that the squad care too much. The prolonged adventure is something to enjoy, not fear. The sense of camaraderie and closeness seems to calm the players and coaches. The environment makes sure no-one is overwhelmed.    

SF: They all had Umbro trainers, which were blue, so Noel O’Reilly changed the words from ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ to ‘Umbro Shoes’.

DB: Remember the old Adidas Gazelle runners? That material but Umbro and light blue. Green tracksuit top and black bottoms. Jesus, Ireland gave us some bad kit! I think we had yellow ties for our suits. But we didn’t give a shit. We were with Brian.

I think it was John Burns who came up with ‘Umbro Shoes’. He was a cracking singer and then Noel made up a song about it.

On 29 June, the Irish take on Spain, who had finished top of Group D with three wins from three games before easily brushing past Canada.  

Brian Kerr: It was the first time I felt confident we were going to beat someone. I really felt we were playing a team with a similar style to us – a fairly cocky shower – but I felt we had the edge if we got it right and everyone played to their limits.

Derek O’Connor: We started well. We had enough chances. We could’ve scored ourselves after two or three minutes. Spain got back into it around 20/25 minutes and had a few shots on goal but nothing serious. We got to half-time at 0-0 and felt a bit hard done by, I suppose, because we’d had chances to take the lead. And then we got a peno almost from the restart – about five or six minutes were gone.

SF: Of all the games, it was the one I didn’t have any doubt about. I hadn’t even seen Spain so I’m not sure why I felt that way but I thought the mix of our players was just so good. Beforehand, Trevor Molloy told me he was going to score and that he was going to dedicate the goal to his son – who has now already played in the League of Ireland and is in America doing really well right now – but was only a newborn then. Sure enough, he made the penalty and scored it. And it was weird. It was just, ‘Ah, these won’t beat us’. There was no logic to it. But momentum had built up. We were unstoppable.

Ghana v Rep of Ireland (world youth championships third place play off) Source: Matthew Ashton

TM: The ball came across and I was going to shoot. But I saw the big man come across so I thought I’d take it by him. And as I took it by him, he took me down for a peno. I didn’t even look at the goalkeeper because they’d do anything to try and intimidate you and put you off and make you take your time or lose your bottle. I was having none of it.

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DB: He wanted to take it because he’d been telling stories about his missus and new baby at home. I remember he ran over and got the ball and pointed at himself. He kissed the Irish badge on his jersey before taking it and I remember getting the goose pimples and I knew he wasn’t going to miss.

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DOC: They put a lot of pressure on for the last 20/25 minutes. 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.

The Irish face Argentina in their semi-final clash. They have knocked out England and Brazil already and their squad features some astoundingly good players. Still, just 90 minutes away from a World Cup final, the team’s progress has now become a huge story back home. With RTE having shown highlights of the quarter-final win over Spain, they make the decision to cover the Argentina clash live. 

SF: By that stage, a lot of people had seen the Spain game and RTE realised it was something they should probably support.

Sean Whelan: I was in Hong Kong at the time, covering the hand-back of Hong Kong to China. I’d spent months planning and scheming my way down there, arranging crewing and satellite times and doing stories. The day after the Red Army had marched into town, I was absolutely wrecked and looking forward to a good night’s sleep and a few days of heading into mainland China when I got the famous call from RTE: ‘There’s a Youth World Cup in Malaysia and the lads have done a lot better than anyone thought they would. They’re in a semi-final, you’re in the region so can you cover it?’ By ‘in the region’, they meant somewhere in the eastern hemisphere. I foolishly said yes and put paid to my few days in China. The flight meant I had to leave really early the following morning. I might have got about three hours sleep. I had to be up at an ungodly hour. It was absolutely lashing with rain, I had to push through one of the world’s busiest airports and there was lots of plane-hopping. You had to go from Hong Kong to Singapore, change planes, then go from there to Malaysia. It was a six-hour flight to Singapore and then another trek to Kuching and made it to the stadium just in time.

Argentina v Uraguay, World Youth Championship Final Pablo Aimar in action for Argentina at the U20 World Cup in 1997. Source: Matthew Ashton

DB: Argentina had just beaten Brazil, who had scored an absolute ton of goals. They beat the English too, who had a really good squad. So, we knew they were top-notch. And we had to travel a long distance and it took a lot out of us. But we still didn’t care. We knew we had something special. Anything that was put in front of us, we just took it on. We didn’t care. There was nobody we were afraid of.

SF: There were three players in that Argentina squad that were tipped to be the next Maradona at various stages. Each one better than the next: Cambiasso, Riquelme, Aimar. Walter Samuel was there. Fellas who went on to have remarkable careers – Placente, Scaloni, Leo Franco was in goal who had a great career in La Liga. And their goalscorer was Bernardo Romeo.

Soccer - Argentina v Uraguay, World Youth Championship Final. Argentina's Bernardo Romeo. Or is it Stephen Finn? Source: Matthew Ashton

The funny thing was that he looked like me. So all the Argentine media started calling me ‘Romeo’ and they even introduced me to his parents. And every time I saw them after that I’d say, ‘Hello, Mama. Hello, Papa’. But I hadn’t met him up until the night before the game. And when we bumped into each other – we’d obviously heard about each other – and it was a case of, ‘Jesus – you do look like me’.

SW: A few Irish lads were on my flight from Singapore.  They had been working as builders on the huge Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur – the tallest buildings in the world for a few years – and had done a bunk for the day. They had their Celtic and Ireland jerseys on and we ended up in the same few rows. We got off at the other end and I told them, ‘I have no idea where this stadium is’. But they grabbed some of the gear – I was laden down with broadcasting equipment from the other gig – and we hopped in a taxi together and off we went.

BO’B: We were still a bit of a novelty. We were in the company of the Argentine delegation before the semi-final and it was a case of, ‘What are you people still doing here?’ There was a fair degree of arrogance about it.

SW: My main concern was ‘Don’t make an arse of yourself’. So I talked to the football hacks there and made sure I got the names right. I’m not an expert but I bluffed my way through it. As a news reporter, you’re supposed to be adaptable. But it was a case of ‘Who’s yer man? Who’s that fella?’ I freely admit I was chancing my arm on that one but it was the folks back home who said it: ‘You’re in the region’.

Argentina have the added advantage of getting to remain in Kuching while the Irish have to travel six hours for the game. Still, it’s a tight and cagey affair. Scoreless at half-time, Romeo pounces to tuck a sharp finish to the bottom corner 10 minutes after the restart. And despite rallying for the remainder of the game, the Irish can’t find a leveller. 

SF: It was a tactical battle. Our players knew that if they did their job, they could hold them out – regardless of how good Argentina were. We were punished for one error. And when you look at the game, Colin Hawkins had a header that went millimetres over the bar. If that went in…

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DB: We had chances. And they scored one of the scruffiest goals. There was a collision in the area and Romeo put it away. But I remember hearing Noel on the touchline saying we’d get another chance. And we did. Their keeper made a great save from a header late on.

BK: By the time we played Argentina, they’d just beaten England and Brazil so you knew it was the big leagues. But there was still that part of you that wondered whether maybe we could pull it out because we’d gone so far and beaten so many different types of teams. But I feared we wouldn’t have the energy. That physically we were drained after another trip that took six hours. I don’t know where they pulled out the last 25 minutes from. They were superb. They battled, the showed skill and the Argentines were on the rack.

DB: We were the only team in the tournament to keep them to one goal.

BO’B: Afterwards, in fairness, the Argentina delegation came across and wished us well. They did appreciate that we were there of right. It was a proud moment for myself and for any Irish that were out there. But especially for the lads.

SW: There had been an issue with the schedule and we had to wait for two hours before we could send the report back to RTE. It was at that point I sat down and scanned through this folder I received from Fifa and said, ‘Right, where the fuck am I? Where is Kuching?’ About five hours after arriving, I found out Kuching was in Borneo. I had assumed it was going to be somewhere in Kuala Lumpur or not far off it. But Borneo? Out on an island shared with Indonesia and the Sultan of Brunei. It brought back happy memories of watching David Attenborough as a kid watching bat-caves and oranguatangs. So there I was – with the sun going down – in a very humid, sweat-box of a satellite room, squatting on the concrete floor and reading tourist maps about ‘Kuching – The City of Cats’.

Soccer - Argentina v Uraguay, World Youth Championship Final. Esteban Cambiasso was another star of the Argentina side at the U20 World Cup in 1997. Source: Matthew Ashton

SF: There was silence. For a very, very long time. We got the bus to the airport the next day and there was still silence. The players really thought they should’ve been playing in a World Cup final. So that was a challenge for Noel and Brian to bring them back. To get them around to the fact they were in a medal position and close to doing something that had never been done before.

DB: I remember the players’ faces in the dressing room afterwards. We were all jaded and sore and gutted. But we knew we had a great chance. It was just back to basics in terms of the preparation.

With three days to recover and refocus the minds, the Irish return to Shah Alam – a venue that had been very kind to them so far – to take on a familiar foe in the 3/4th place play-off.  

SF: The fact they’d faced Ghana before and got beaten, maybe there was a sense of wanting to show how much they’d developed and how better they were. Show Ghana how lucky they’d been to beat them. It had been difficult to get rhythm early on – because of the withdrawals – and it was only as the tournament went on that we realised what a great combination of players we had.

SW: I remember getting a lift to the stadium on the team bus which was a real thrill. Genuinely it was great fun. The buzz! They were playing the Irish traditional songs. Driving along in Kuala Lumpur – an incredible, modern city – and into this stadium. And you’re almost part of the whole set-up. It was just a good feeling. The vibe was fascinating. The psychology of it: guys preparing for a big set-piece event. There and after the game, I was really impressed with the way Brian and Noel were motivating the players – it was a really mature way of doing it. They were getting them nicely built up without any shouting and roaring. The man-management was very impressive. And the players were very impressive in how they handled themselves. They weren’t visibly nervous.

BO’B: I had been speaking with Brian and he asked me to address the players before the game. I can’t remember exactly what I said but it was along the lines of, ‘The whole nation is absolutely proud of you. You don’t have to prove yourselves any further. But wouldn’t it be nice to get third place?’ I wanted to take the pressure off them and urge them to go and do it. And wipe out the defeat in our first game against Ghana. But they were resilient themselves and didn’t want to end on a bum note.

It’s an explosive start and within two minutes, Dessie Baker pops up to head Ireland into the lead. 

DB: I remember ringing home. Mam and dad were saying the aunties and uncles had the tricolours out. They had three TVs in the house. She had about 50 people in the house. But she couldn’t watch it. Brian told me in the warm-up to conserve energy and make the right decisions on the pitch. He told me that I’d learned my lesson from the Morocco game when I lasted until the 70th-minute mark.

via GIPHY

So, that’s in my mind and the game kicks off. The ball goes down the left, the cross comes in and I’ve sprinted my hardest across the pitch and bury the header at the near post. The stupid thick that I am, the adrenaline is pumping through me and there’s the Irish fans on the halfway line on the other side. So I sprint my hardest to go over and celebrate in front of them. And I’m on the ground and the boys jump on me. And I just shout out, ‘Boys, get off me – I’m gonna die’. All my energy was gone. I couldn’t breathe. I think I’d even been holding my breath when the cross came in. It took 10 minutes to get my body back working again.

SF: The exuberance of the celebration signalled the belief we had that we were going to win it. Just the cheeky Dub stuff. It was a great performance.

DB: My da probably had a few quid on me scoring the first goal. The game started, she pressed the button on the kettle and the fucking place erupted. She almost scalded herself. She ran back in and said, ‘What’s happened?’ And they were like, ‘Dessie’s after scoring’. And she just went, ‘Oh, for fuck sake – I’m only after getting up off the fucking thing’.

But within three minutes of Baker’s opener, Ghana level. Still, on 33 minutes, Thomas Morgan picks up the ball in the centre of the pitch and slides a perfect through-ball for Damien Duff. In a replica of his calm, assured finish against Morocco, he cooly knocks it to the bottom corner and Ireland don’t relinquish the lead again.  

BK: The two goals we got were good enough to win any match and win any medal. The second goal, the construction of it – the delicacy of the pass from Thomas and the finish from Duff.

via GIPHY

DB: Thomas probably knew where you were going to run before you did. He was almost directing you where to go. The important things as a midfielder is to get into pockets to make space around you and to dictate where people are going to go. I’m not sure if Thomas was taught that or if it was just natural ability. Maybe it was just the footballer he was. But Brian was tactically unbelievable over there and Noel was his right-hand man.

SW: I was looking out for Damien Duff because there was talk back in Dublin about him. So, it was a case of, ‘Right, who’s Duff? The blonde fella? Okay’ But he did stand out. You’ll always see a player who will catch the eye by the way he plays and moves. And I had that with Duff. Everyone was watching him and expecting him to provide.

Soccer - World Youth Football Championships - Third Place Play off - Ghana v Ireland Source: Matthew Ashton

On 5 July 1997 at the Shah Alam Stadium in Selangor, Malaysia, the Republic of Ireland finish third at the World Cup and claim the bronze medal. History is made.  

BO’B: First and foremost, I’m a football fan. So at the full-time whistle we went berserk. We had a tricolour and were waving it and hugging each other. It was a great occasion. I remember the ambassador, Brendan Lynch, brought us all to an Irish pub downtown. And we had some stew, bacon and cabbage and plenty of pints of Guinness. Nobody wanted to go to bed that night.

SW: Afterwards, in an Irish pub downtown, the blazers were lowering the pints but the players weren’t, really. Nor the managers. They pulled out the guitars and were together – singing the songs. Enjoying it. And these were young guys on the other side of the planet and had just finished third at a World Cup. They could’ve cut loose but they didn’t. They were a credit to their country.

DB: I remember the crowds that night and the songs we were singing. Johnny was singing, ‘Oco’ was doing the ballads. The craic was brilliant.

SF: It’s something historical. I have so much respect for everyone in that group.

BK: It was incredibly satisfying to hear other countries say that we were tactically astute, that we had great heart, being difficult to play against. I just pull the strings together and make the whole picture have a bit of shape to it.

BO’B: There was the belief that these were the young guys who’d come through. Some of them did push on, some of them didn’t. But at that time, it raised the spirits.

SW: I was buying into the notion that it was the fruits of the money we’d got from the Charlton era and had seeped into the grassroots and the investment in training and facilities and we were going to herald a new dawn. It raised the expectation. It goes in waves but ’97 was a real breakthrough and real hope for the future. My memories are of something totally unexpected and totally outside of my normal area of work. But finding yourself in Borneo, reporting on a football match 45 minutes after stepping off a plane was pretty special. Less than 36 hours beforehand I had done a report on the Red Army marching on Hong Kong. Talk about a new job everyday. It stands out as one of the most pleasurable events to have been on. Because it was a good news story. And the young guys… level-headed, mature, professional — I was just impressed with them as individuals.

Ghana v Rep of Ireland (world youth championships third place play off) Source: Matthew Ashton

SF: These things come around in cycles. They’re perfect and imperfect storms at the same time. I’ve been watching Irish underage teams from the 1980s and people think there was a magic formula for 1997. There wasn’t. Essentially, age groups are weird. You could have five brilliant players born in one year and you suddenly have a great team. Three of them get injured and you’re not a great team anymore. People get overly-nostalgic when they look at these things but you have to look at the reality of it. What the 1997 team did was unbelievable but other underage teams who achieved less produced more senior international players — which is what they’re about, ultimately. If you have a bit of luck, a bit of belief and individuals doing their stuff, you can go a long way.

DB: I remember coming back to Dublin Airport and there must’ve been thousands there to welcome us. Friends and family were in a room. I got through and my mam stood up on a barrier in the middle of the crowd and started blowing kisses. And I think all of the mothers and all of the lads just realised what we’d done. I was on The Gerry Ryan Show — Brenda Donoghue was in my house in Tallaght waiting for me to do an interview — and the Late Late show with the lads and Brian. It doesn’t seem like 20 years ago. It feels like five. It’s the highlight of my career. Everyone just got on. No-one was left out. Everyone was so involved in doing something for each other. It’s like growing up with your mates and playing football with them and achieving one of the best things with them.

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Boys of Summer: We celebrate Ireland’s golden generation and their golden moment

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