Breen and Spain's Ivan Helguera during Ireland's World Cup 2002 second round defeat. INPHO
cult hero

'You walk out to a sea of green and start thinking about holidays on farms in Kerry and Clare'

Gary Breen admits getting ‘very emotional’ right before Ireland’s 2002 World Cup campaign and says he sees a similar togetherness in the current squad.

AFTER LIVING OUT his own dream in 2002, Gary Breen is hopeful that the current Ireland players can do the same when they travel to France this summer.

With a father from Kerry and a mother from Clare, Breen was born in London but, like many others, had a very Irish up-bringing. He attended the Christian Brothers-run St Aloysius College and would spend most weekends in the Irish Centre off Camden Road.

Gary discovered football at a young age and was signed by Charlton Athletic’s academy — although he departed for Maidstone United and made his debut there at 17 before playing for the Addicks’ first team.

That spell was short-lived and Breen lined out for Gillingham, Peterborough United and Birmingham City before Coventry City paid £2.5 million for his services in 1997.

By that time, the centre-half had already made his international bow under Mick McCarthy in a friendly against Portugal at Lansdowne Road.

Breen recalls his former manager at Gillingham, Damien Richardson, calling him into his office to tell him he had the choice between the England U18s and Ireland’s U21s. He scoffed at the idea that there was a decision to be made.

“You grow up dreaming of playing for Ireland, you literally do,” Breen said in Dublin this week. “I’m very vocal about it, even now.

“I’ve got a London accent, of course, but I’m mindful that when you play for your country it elevates you to a different level and you have to protect that.”

PA-53724 Breen during his Gillingham days. EMPICS Sport EMPICS Sport

Breen holds strong beliefs about identity and what it should mean to play for your country.

“When we’re seeing people declaring for other countries, be it in rugby whatever, you’re losing that,” he adds.

“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.

“I don’t bang the drum about it, but I am mindful whether it’s other sports like rugby with this residency rule. It’s a nonsense for me. I don’t agree with it.

“This is what’s so unique. When you do play for your country it just means everything to you. When I’m growing dreaming of playing for Ireland, it’s in major tournaments and then to get the opportunity it was everything and more I hoped it could be.”

Gary Breen Republic of Ireland Making his Ireland debut in 1996. © Lorraine O'SullivanINPHO © Lorraine O'SullivanINPHO

That opportunity arose in 2002 when Ireland finished ahead of the Netherlands in their qualifying group and came through a two-legged play-off with Iran to book their place at the World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea.

A free agent after leaving Coventry City at the end of the 2001/2002 season, Breen started all three of Ireland’s Group E matches as well as the second round clash with Spain, which the Boys in Green eventually lost via a penalty shootout.

Those performances earned him a move to West Ham (after a couple of outrageous links to Barcelona and Inter Milan).

Breen speaks of a unity among that group of players, who had gone through the Saipan controversy pre-tournament, and says he sees a similar togetherness in Martin O’Neill’s squad heading into Euro 2016.

“I hope they give a good account of themselves,” says Breen. “I look at them and I think they’re a great bunch as you can tell the togetherness that they’ve got.

That is very apparent in terms of how they turned around the campaign. At times they were up against it and did brilliantly.

“I hope that it goes well for them because I look back at the lads who qualified for the last one (Euro 2012) and the dream wasn’t to pan out the way it did for them.

“I felt sorry for them because I’m sure they would’ve been like me growing up thinking about playing at a major tournament and the dream is certainly not for it to go the way it went for them.

“I just hope they’re able to give a good account of themselves.”

Republic of Ireland v Saudi Arabia Breen celebrates his goal against Saudi Arabia at the 2002 World Cup. PA Archive / Press Association Images PA Archive / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

These days working as a pundit for Setanta Sports after a brief spelling coaching with Barnet when he retired in 2010, Breen recalls the overwhelming sense of pride upon walking out onto the pitch of the Niigata Stadium before Ireland’s opener with Cameroon.

“I would say to those lads who haven’t been to a tournament, it is so special when they get there,” he says, “They won’t realise. They will have heard everyone saying about it but they won’t realise until they actually get there.

“I look back and when we walked out onto the pitch to look around in your tracksuit prior to the kick-off, I remember walking out to a sea of green and you just suddenly get really emotional.

I’m not really a particularly emotional guy but it really was that day and they’ve got it all to look forward to that day and I’m very envious of it.

“It’s weird because I walked out and we were milling about and just looking at the pitch and at the crowd. It’s not something you want a big tough centre-half to admit for sure, but yeah, very emotional.”

And what were the thoughts going through his head? His parents leaving Ireland…?

“It is literally things like that,” he replies. “Every summer holiday, half-terms going over and spending time on the farms in Kerry and Clare, it’s all that. Doing for your grandparents and your parents proud, all that.”

Gary Breen launched SPAR’s Team of Gary Breens competition this week. See for further details

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‘The reality is you wouldn’t win many games with a team of Gary Breens’ – Gary Breen

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