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‘I’d been released by Blackburn... I was at a crossroads in my career’

Thomas Morgan recalls emerging from a low point in his footballing life to captain his country to a historic achievement.

Updated at 23.52

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WHEN MOST PEOPLE are reminded of Brian Kerr’s Irish U20 team that made history by winning a bronze medal at the World Youth Championships 20 years ago this month, the first player 99.9% people think of is Damien Duff.

Yet Duff is an anomaly. Whereas he went on to win 100 caps for Ireland, only one other player in the 18-man squad that travelled would ultimately be capped at senior level — Glen Crowe, the Shelbourne and Bohs legend who in playing twice for the senior side, is one of the few footballers from the League of Ireland to have represented the national team in recent years.

Richard Dunne, Kevin Kilbane and David Connolly were among those eligible to feature in Malaysia back then, but Mick McCarthy was reluctant to allow these individuals to travel.

Consequently, the group was not full of players destined for stardom. Aside from Duff, only four other footballers of the 18 that went were representing Premier League clubs at the time.

Thomas Morgan Republic of Ireland Under 21 4/9/1998 Morgan captained the 1997 Ireland side that won a bronze medal at the World Youth Championships. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

The rest were a mixture of players with teams from England’s lower leagues and League of Ireland youngsters, with Kerr receiving criticism in some quarters for relying on the latter group.

The captain, Thomas Morgan, epitomised the team’s qualities — a good player playing at his absolute maximum level in a team where the sole eventual superstar (Duff) was also one of the most humble footballers you could ever hope to meet.

Born in Dublin, he may not have quite been as successful as Duff or his first cousin Wes Hoolahan, but Morgan was undoubtedly talented.

As Stephen Finn, then a sports journalist with the Irish Daily Star who covered the team in Malaysia recalled of Morgan in our recent oral history of the event:

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.”

Nevertheless, Morgan didn’t enter into the Malaysia experience in the best of spirits. He had just been released by Blackburn, who were a Premier League club that had won the title only two years previously at the time.

And while being let go was immensely hurtful at the time, he reflects positively on the experience with the benefit of 20 years’ hindsight.

I could have signed for other clubs like Manchester United or Liverpool, but I chose Blackburn, because it was the choice that I thought was more beneficial for me,” he tells The42. “It was a brilliant experience going there and learning my trade as a young footballer at 16 years of age, learning to be a pro, becoming a pro, spending three or four years over there during the period when Blackburn won the Premier League, which will never happen again as far as we know.

“They were up there (at the time) — European football, at the highest level of Premier League football, I was training with top lads. I was in their Champions League squad a couple of times, which was a great achievement for me.”

Brian Kerr, manager. 1/7/1997 Kerr's man-management skills were a key factor in the Irish side's success. Source: © INPHO/Patrick Bolger

One of Kerr’s great strengths as a coach was getting the best out of players, and Morgan was no exception. Perhaps sensing that he was reeling from the Blackburn setback, not only did the manager select the player, he made him captain of the side.

It’s 20 years since the tournament, but it feels only like yesterday,” Morgan says. “Everything was so clear, the whole time in general. The amount of time we spent together over a month, it was a totally surreal experience. We didn’t know where we were going to end up or where we’d finish.

“A lot of players will tell you — you go out to that tournament into the unknown for the U20 World Cup.

It’s very hard — as we’ve seen over the years, not many Irish teams have been (at that level). So to go far and achieve as much with that group of players, great characters were made over there — different people of different backgrounds coming together.

“As an experience, it’s a live-alone memory for everybody that went on that trip.

For me, being captain of the group, finishing third and getting a bronze medal at the end of the tournament was a great memory. You’re not reminded until years later what type of players were playing in the tournament, top players who went on to have unbelievable careers.”

Ireland may not have had the depth of talent of Argentina, or even the English and French sides that exited the competition before them, but what stood to the Boys in Green was an immense self-belief that brought the team to the cusp of glory.

People say ‘this person could have went, that person could have went,’ David Connolly — I remember his name being mentioned — Richard Dunne and Kevin Kilbane. Alan Mahon was a good player at Tranmere. We had a lot of good footballers that could have gone, but what happened was, as a group when we went over there, our beliefs all came together game after game. When you’re there, you’re living together and working with each other all the time (it can happen).

“We got out of the last 16 — we beat Morocco, I think it was the first golden goal by Damien Duff.

Then you’re in the quarter final of a World Cup. After that, we believed we could go all the way to win the World Cup.

“We did believe more and more as the tournament went on because of the performances and togetherness and players playing for each other.”

Ghana v Rep of Ireland (world youth championships third place play off) Then only 18, Damien Duff was the star of the Malaysia '97 side. Source: EMPICS Sport

And while there was no shortage of graft, the Irish side also relied on some moments of inspiration, many of which were provided by their star player, Damien Duff, the one individual in the team who went on to become a genuinely world-class footballer at his peak.

Morgan remembers his former team-mate at club and international level fondly, and is adamant that for all he achieved in the game during the subsequent 20 years, ‘Duffer’ remains essentially the same person now as he was then.

I knew Damien already because he was with Blackburn as a pro. He was a few years younger than me. We were in the same environment at club level, so I knew what he was like — he was a raw talent. When he came over, he was that young kid that was fearless. In the modern game, you don’t see much like him nowadays especially in Ireland — wingers who basically ran at full-backs and were positive.

“I saw him from a young age doing that for Blackburn. He was the youngest going over to Malaysia — he was just put on a platform to go and perform, which he did. He had a lot of talent and the manager put a lot of belief in him and he just went on to be the great player he was over a long period in football.

But you could see that he had something different with the running ability and the fearlessness, going at full-backs.

“That’s what I loved so much about Damien, he had that relaxed character about him. It was ‘I’m playing football here’.

People say ‘play like you did in the park when you were a kid’. He did do that. Then he goes up and plays like that at a higher level, which was just fantastic.

“You’ll see from looking at pictures of the group how young he looked going over there. He looked about 14.

And if you talk to Damien, he’ll tell you one of the highlights of his career was the Malaysia thing, because it was really the start of everything for him. He used to play reserve-team football at Blackburn — he’d never been capped at senior international level (at the time), but he’s a modest fella and down-to-earth — just one of the lads… But he was always like that and he is to this day. Everyone in the group was like that as well.”

Morgan continues: “Trevor Molloy, at the time, was playing for Athlone. I just got released from Blackburn. There were other lads playing reserve-team football, League of Ireland. So there was a mix of everything. A team was created through a sort of coming together.

You had fellas looking out for each other, believing in each other, playing for each other. And that was really good, covering the whole squad. The goalkeeper to Dave Worrell (then of Blackburn) at the back, (UCD player) Aidan Lynch. Great players and different lads from different areas all coming together. That’s why it was such a great achievement.

“There weren’t many superstars going over there, but they came back (having had) an unbelievable tournament.”

Noel O'Reilly 1999 Kerr was ably assisted by the late Noel O'Reilly (pictured centrally with the guitar), who was famous for initiating sing-songs. Source: INPHO

A core ingredient that brought together this unlikely band of footballing misfits was, of course, the management team. Brian Kerr, who had guided St. Patrick’s Athletic to two League of Ireland titles over a 10-year period, had only been appointed in the role of manager the previous December. The Dubliner’s success with the ’97 side among many other notable achievements with the Boys in Green at underage level would eventually land him the role of senior manager following Mick McCarthy’s resignation after the post-2002 World Cup qualification campaign started to go awry.

Kerr was ably assisted by the late Noel O’Reilly, who had worked with him at Pat’s and would continue to serve as the Dubliner’s assistant once he joined the senior set-up.

Noel O’Reilly would have been my underage coach from (renowned Dublin schoolboy team) Belvedere through to Ireland and Pat’s,” Morgan recalls. “I would have seen Brian around Noel a lot over the years, obviously as a great coach at St Pat’s.

“I’d have known about Noel and Brian as a great combination working together.

What (Brian) did was he just made everybody feel good about themselves. (He would put an) arm around the shoulder and say ‘listen Thomas, you’re good’. He made me captain. A few months before that, I’d been released by Blackburn, so I was at a crossroads in my career, (asking): ‘Where am I going?’

“Then you’ve got this big buzz of going to captain Ireland in the World Cup. It really gives you the belief that you’re a good player.

“(Brian would) say to Trevor Molloy: ‘You’re a great striker.’ He’d tell everyone how good they were and make them feel great. He was a good man manager.

You wanted to play for him. He’d get that extra yard out of you. You hear stories about top players going further for certain managers.

“For me, Brian and Noel, you’d do anything for them as a player on the pitch.”

The management duo also had some unconventional but effective methods of preparation, which helped to relax a side with many players representing their country for the first time at a big tournament amid relatively pressurised circumstances.

We went to Limerick for a training camp before we went away and the camaraderie down there was brilliant. Noel had us in saunas dressed in rain gear, getting ready for the heat in Malaysia. Stuff like that was a bit of fun, a bit of banter and they were thinking ahead. You’re going into the unknown over there — the heat of x amount of degrees. Little things like that (worked well).

“Even just over in Malaysia, one day we were doing a cool-down session and Noel had us playing Gaelic football, handpassing the ball around. The locals were looking at it saying: ‘What are these lads doing?’ It just gets you thinking differently.

Other times we’d have sing-songs and get the guitar out at nighttime — just sitting down, having a glass of water and relaxing, no lads in their rooms… We’d get the guitar out and start belting out tunes. It made you feel relaxed. So they created a great environment for everybody to go and play their football.

“Brian would have you motivated, ready to go out and play. You’re obviously representing your country at a high level in international football, so it was fantastic. I can’t speak highly enough of (Brian and Noel).”

Source: sp1873/YouTube

And while there was a notorious booze culture in English football at the time that extended to the Irish team at senior level on occasion, alcohol was not a substantial part of Kerr’s fledglings’ post-match celebrations, thought its absence did not stop the players from enjoying themselves.

After games there’d be a curfew, and you’d be still buzzing. You’d go out and have a little sing-song with Noel on the guitar, but you’d be home at a reasonable time — 11 or 12 o’clock. You wouldn’t be stuck in a hotel room for three or four weeks. We’d still get out and mix together. You might have maybe one bottle of beer when you didn’t have a match for four days, but there’d be none of that (excessive drinking) — because we were quite young as well.

“It was only three or four days in between games, so there was a lot of getting ready for the next match.

“We played so much football. Plus, being in Malaysia, it’s not like being in Dublin and spending a few hours going to Fermoy or somewhere. We (always) travelled — a flight from A to B and stuff like that.

Times have changed now and people are thinking ‘you have to be doing this and you have to be doing that’. But to go out and perform to me you have to be comfortable in what you’re doing, not bored.”

Even simply inhabiting a place as unique as Malaysia felt exotic — the players had never experienced anything quite like it before.

With all the Irish lads there, the furthest we would have went at that stage would have been Spain or the UK on our holidays. There was a different culture over there (in Malaysia) — the people were so nice and friendly, really helpful. They made us feel welcome.

“I remember the different climate — one day we were doing a recovery session in an outdoor swimming pool, and next thing the rain came down. It was like a monsoon in the forest we were in. The rain was pouring down and it was warm. We were saying ‘it’s not like this in Ireland’. There were things like that where you’re saying: ‘This is a totally new culture.’”

Yet for all the special memories, nothing could compare to the football itself. The Irish side actually lost their first match 2-1 to Ghana but barely looked back from there. A 2-1 win over USA was followed by a 1-1 draw with China, which saw them finish second in their group to progress to the knockout stages.

From there, the dream of winning the tournament started to look possible. In the round of 16, they beat Morocco 2-1 thanks to Damien Duff’s beautifully taken extra-time golden goal.

In the quarter-finals, a Spanish side featuring future Valencia star David Albelda were seen off following Trevor Molloy’s composed finish from the penalty spot on 52 minutes.

Source: killianM2/YouTube

Then came the semi-final against an Argentina side that featured immensely talented stars of the future, including Juan Riquelme, Esteban Cambiasso and Pablo Aimar. Defender Walter Samuel, who would later be part of Jose Mourinho’s Champions League-winning Inter side in 2010, was an unused substitute for the penultimate match.

In the end, the Irish were knocked out at the semi-final stage, following a 1-0 loss. The scoreline, however, did not tell the whole story.

My memory of that game was the heat,” Morgan recalls. “It was an afternoon kick-off at 4.30. In the stadium, there was a small bit of shade. I remember Noel doing the warm-up in that small area. (People were) wondering: ‘What are these lads doing here?’

“It was basically just (a case of) getting loads of fluids (into your bodies) and getting out of the heat. I remember the game starting — I was captain and Riquelme was the other captain. Bernardo Romeo up front got the goal (for Argentina).

I remember thinking one goal will do and for the last 25 minutes, we absolutely bombarded their penalty area. There were a couple of half chances to go 1-1, which unfortunately we didn’t get. It left us gutted not to score, because if we got the goal to make it 1-1, to me, we would have went on to win that game. Then after that, you’re in the World Cup final.

“I read in the paper the other day that England were in the semi-finals of the U20 World Cup for the first time since 1993 (a tournament they have since won). It shows how hard it is to get there with what’s going on in England at the moment, with the youth systems and all their underage teams getting so good.

We were so close at that time against a good Argentina team. They were on their knees in the end. They were shattered. They couldn’t even celebrate. They knew they were in a game, and they went on to win against Uruguay (2-1) in the final.

“We had a chance to go on and win it, which would have been unheard of… I feel to this day if we beat Argentina, we’d have won the World Cup. That’s how close we really came.”

There was still time, however, for the Irish team to gain revenge on the Ghana side who had beaten them in the opening game, with the Boys in Green earning a bronze medal in the process.

Typically, Duff scored the winner on 33 minutes, after Dessie Baker’s early goal had been cancelled out by Baba Sule’s fifth-minute strike.

The Blackburn starlet’s effort was uncannily similar to his golden goal against Morocco, though on this occasion, it was created by an inch-perfect through pass from Morgan.

Soccer - World Youth Football Championships - Third Place Play off - Ghana v Ireland Ireland players do a Jurgen Klinsmann dive to celebrate their success in the World Youth Football Championships in Malaysia. Source: EMPICS Sport

Back home, the reaction was inevitably frenzied. The team returned as heroes, having enjoyed unprecedented levels of success for an Irish side.

The buzz of everybody (in Ireland) was massive. After the Spanish game, what happened, you hear (what it’s like) at home. We were all doing little interviews over there. The late (sports broadcaster) Johnny Lyons from 98fm would have been a friend of mine.

“But you knew about the buzz at home anyway. You’d speak to your parents or family members and they’d be saying to you that everybody’s behind you, the semi-final is going to be on live on RTÉ and so on.

You could feel the build-up from everybody at home telling you about it — the little articles in the paper and stuff like that. But I don’t think we realised (the extent of it) until we were back in Ireland.

“I remember in Dublin airport, it was like a little press conference. I remember getting up after a 12-hour flight from Malaysia and people would be asking questions. You’re thinking ‘this is real here’. There were family members for all the lads at the airport — it felt like thousands of people.

The next day, we went to, I think, the Mansion House to see (then recently appointed Taoiseach) Bertie Ahern. It was fantastic.”

Reflecting on the experience 20 years on, Morgan remains extremely proud of what the Irish team achieved out in Malaysia. Last Friday, he met up with the side, many of whom he has barely seen since, in a Brian Kerr-arranged reunion at the Gresham Hotel in Dublin.

The 40-year-old retired footballer currently works as an FAI Development officer in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown area, managing the Irish homeless team in recent World Cups among other tasks. His career contained no shortage of success, even after the incomparable Malaysian experience.

After being let go by Blackburn and rejecting the offer of a one-year deal at Blackpool (a Division Two/League One team at the time), Morgan spent 10 years playing in the League of Ireland, lining out for several clubs, with the highlights being the four titles he won (two with St Pat’s and Shelbourne respectively).

To me, League of Ireland is a packed Richmond Park,” he adds.

Yet Morgan remains best remembered as the player who captained that famous Ireland U20 side, and he is more than content with this level of renown, even if he does admit to being a little disappointed that — Duff aside — none of the players on the Malaysia team went on to achieve long-term stardom at the very highest level.

Things happen for a reason… I came home, signed for Pat’s. I had some good European nights with them and with Shels.

“I wouldn’t give that up for anything. There’s no point in saying: ‘I could have done this, I should have done that.’ You just work with what you’ve got, try to work hard and achieve something in football.

The Blackburn experience was a great experience. I met some great people. Kenny Dalglish, who was one of my heroes as a Liverpool fan, was the manager there.

“Some of the Irish lads I went away with are still good friends to this day. So I’ve got some great memories.”

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

16 players from the 1997 World Youth Championships who became stars>

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