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'I gave out the jerseys the other day and there were lads with tears in their eyes'

The Irish Defence Forces are off to the Chinese city of Wuhan to compete at the World Military Games this week.

Mick McCarthy alongside Irish Defence Forces manager Richie Barber and his players.
Mick McCarthy alongside Irish Defence Forces manager Richie Barber and his players.
Image: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

NO SOONER HAD the Irish Defence Forces football team secured their place at the 2019 World Military Games last December than manager Richie Barber and his backroom staff had begun meticulously planning for the tournament. 

The 10 months since then have flown by, and final preparations are being made as the squad flies out to Wuhan, in the central Chinese province of Hubei, this afternoon.

Along with the footballers, Ireland is also sending boxers and shooters to compete — including four-time elite champion and European bronze medallist Ross Hickey. 

Players have been balancing their military commitments with an intense training programme over the past seven weeks, which featured regular warm-up matches against League of Ireland and Leinster Senior League opposition. 

“They’re a smashing group of fellas,” Barber told The42 before departing. “Their commitment has been unquestionable. Many have already spent a lot of time away from their families to come here and prepare, as we have lads from all over the country.

“We’ve been assessing them by professional standards, and 80% of the camp had their fitness levels up at elite standard, which is a great starting point heading to a tournament.

The staff have been brilliant too. No stone was left unturned — from travel plans with the Institute of Sport to reduce jet lag to video analysis — all done in addition to their military jobs.

“Tommy Naughton [coach] and Terry Healy [video analysis] have been selfless in helping the team prepare even though they knew they would not be travelling to China due to number restrictions.

“In terms of results in the friendly matches, they have been up and down. We had some good ones against the likes of the Netherlands and Athlone Town. Beating the Dutch 3-1 made a statement.

“We’ve played quality sides such as Shamrock Rovers and Longford Town, so the boys have been tested to the highest level we can get in the country. There were a couple of draws with Leinster Senior League teams when we probably should have won, but we learned a lot from them.”

mick-mccarthy-meets-irish-defence-forces-team The Ireland squad out at FAI headquarters last week. Source: Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

Ireland will no doubt call upon the quality and experience of captain Sean Guerins, who plays for FAI Junior Cup champions St Michael’s, Chris Kenny (Wexford) and Lee Delaney (Evergreen).

The nature of army work means there are a number of players unavailable due to military commitments and injuries.  Shelbourne defender Aidan Friel would surely have been an integral part of the team but the 28-year-old won’t travel after being selected for a career course in the army. 

“We would have loved to have someone like Aidan with us,” says Barber. “He has just been promoted to the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division with Shels, and has been a key player over the last 10 years.

“He’s gutted not to be travelling and we’re gutted not to have him. He just couldn’t miss the time, which is a pity.

Overall though, I’m delighted with the lads and their application has been unbelievable. We couldn’t have put any more into the preparation so hopefully it all comes together out there.”

Muirhevnamor midfielder Ray McCann and Scott Delaney, who plays for St Peters in Athlone, were two late call-ups. 

“It’s great to have them as they’re very experienced players who have played at World Cups before.”

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sean-guerins-with-shane-ross Irish Defence Forces captain Sean Guerins (right) in action for his club St Michaels against Sheriff YC in the FAI Junior Cup final. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Ireland began their group against Algeria on Wednesday before facing the US and Qatar later in the week.

“Algeria are former world champions and a conscript team,” explains the Ireland boss. “They’ll be pretty much be playing most of their U21 and U19 international team. Then we have the USA on Friday, and they’ll be looking to get their own back on us as we beat them 6-1 a couple of years ago, which was the biggest win of the 2017 tournament in Oman.

“In the final game, we meet Qatar. They won the last World Cup — again a conscript nation. It’s a really tough group but it’s tournament football and with our application, nothing is impossible. We’d love to get out of the group and then take it game-by-game. At that point, anything can happen over 90 minutes.”

He adds: “It’ll mean everything to these players. I gave out the jerseys for the lads to see the other day and there were a few with tears in their eyes. These are fellas who represent their country anyway and have served overseas, but you can see the pride they take with anything to do with the tricolour and their nation. The passion and the patriotism they carry is immense.

There are lads whose families are travelling out to China to watch them play in a World Cup. It’s an unbelievable honour for them, and for us as a staff to be with them.”

The group met Ireland senior manager Mick McCarthy at the FAI’s National Training Centre last week, and he sent them on their way with some words of encouragement.

“Mick was great. He basically just said to us ‘No regrets. You’ve put everything in and done all the work, so enjoy it and don’t let it pass you by, because it can be over in a flash’.

“He said he has confidence that we will get the results we’re looking for.”

Ireland Defence Forces squad

Goalkeepers: Ken Deegan (St Francis), Mick Fogarty (St Peters).

Defenders: David Long (St Francis), Craig Doran (Kilmore Celtic), Sean Guerins (captain) (St Michaels), Lee Delaney (Evergreen), Ross McCarthy (Youghal AFC), Sean Gannon (Oliver Bond), Scott Delaney (St Peters).

Midfielders: Chris Kenny (Wexford), Shane Dempsey (North End United), Craig Shortt (Birr Town), Adrian Rafferty (Bluebell United), Ray McCann (Muirhevnamor), Daniel Keane (Kilnamanagh), Dave O’Riordan (Newbridge Town).

Forwards: Ronan Kerin (Avenue United), Gavin Dillon (St Michaels), Derek Walsh (SCV), Tony Smith (Salthill Devon). 

Fixtures: 

  • Wednesday, 16 October – Algeria v Ireland, 11am local time (4am Irish time) 
  • Friday, 18 October – USA v Ireland, 3pm local time (8am Irish time) 
  • Sunday, 20 October – Ireland v Qatar, 3pm local time (8am Irish time) 

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Ben Blake

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