Season after season, decade after decade and generation by generation, prodigious talents fall through the metaphorical cracks of elite-level, often even professional football. It is an inevitable tragedy, perhaps, and a feature of the sport only exacerbated by the refined selectivity of modern tendencies. Yet these are individuals within a largely cohesive wider operation that, for reasons psychological, physical or otherwise unrelated to the sport itself, bely abilities that appear so unbounded in the circumstances. When an entire squad, underpinned with the aspirations of a nation renowned for defying its circumstances, fails to translate teenage prowess to any discernible senior prestige – in the example of all but two players – however, we must question the foundations provided and cohesion devoted to of the wider institutions around those whose achievements define an entire sporting history. Such, unfortunately, is the case for an unlikely source; late 1990s competition in the Republic of Ireland.
Only twice prior having finished in the top four of any UEFA Under-18 European Championship tournament – run annually, aside from a biennial treatment between 1986 and 1993, since 1946 – with fourth-placed results in both 1949 and 1984, the nation had not exactly been imposing in earlier appearances. The former of these accomplishments even occurred at a time when unified with Northern Ireland under the IFA (Irish Football Association, now serving the Northern Irish national team), not FAI (Football Association of Ireland), banner – just a year later officially separating in terms of selection, and another two years hence recognised by FIFA as entirely separate entities worthy of individual qualification. As such, when ousted 2-1 by their Spanish counterparts in the third-fourth play-off of the 1997 competition – hosted in Iceland – and proceeding to both lift the trophy in 1998 in a final victory procured, rather aptly, on penalties against an only seven-years reunified Germany and resort to third place with 1-0 third-fourth tie win against Greece the year later, it was celebrated as a defining moment in Irish footballing history; a coup de foudre. All this, after only months prior to their 1998 triumph at under-18 level, the under-16s had also held aloft the spoils of victory in their format’s UEFA European Championship to set up a youth-age double, in the same calendar year (thus discounting Portugal, whose July 1994 under-18 title and May 1995 under-16 trophy meant that they did hold the trophies together for some two months), that was unprecedented for any nation. Considering the prolonged, and considerably more prolific exploits of their English, Spanish, German, Italian, French, Dutch and even Soviet (or post-Soviet dissolution) contemporaries, this was an astounding anomaly, and still stands, rivalled only by the prowess of both Spanish sides in 2007, today; considering UEFA’s 2002 reformation of their under-16 tournament as an under-17 platform instead, that is.
To identify the protagonists involved in such a provocative belittling of their geographically and economically superior continental adversaries, however, fails some of the establishment-defying principles and profound reconciliation involved. Nonetheless, under the tutelage of Brian Kerr – earlier manager at the financially disadvantaged but spirited St Pats Athletic for a decade – was a contingent that, most notably, featured Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne, alongside a cast of once-inspired, now-transpired names mired within the total obscurity of lower-league English football and Irish domestic competition, which itself pales in popularity to Gaelic Football and Hurling across the Emerald Isle. London-born goalkeeper Alex O’Reilly and his back-up Dean Delaney, defenders Thomas Heary, Keith Doyle and Jason Gavin, midfielders Ger Crossley, David Freeman, Ronnie O’Brien and Richie Partridge and forward Liam George – himself Luton born-and-bred – formed the majority of this squad; never once capped at senior level. Alongside Keane and Dunne, the somewhat recognisable quartet of Stephen McPhail, Alan Quinn, Barry Quinn (unrelated, but the former one of nine brothers that includes former Hull midfielder Stephen) and Gary Doherty did amount to this feat, although to little cumulative aplomb or acclaim, it must be noted. For all of their dexterity as youths, the 18-man squad achieved just 283 caps over what now amounts to 20 years of international opportunity; an unprecedented 146 from Keane, and Dunne’s 80 predominating this total. Thus, it is evident that their talents found little sympathy on the senior stage, despite the largely English club coaching they received and their repeated youth-level international accomplishments.
And these were not moments of mere inspiration; for moments are exactly as they suggest, individual, isolated events of short-term influence, not repeated achievements that lead to a continental title across two weeks of high-risk tournament action in a nation – Cyprus – where presumably none of the players had before ventured. A squad that was cultivated almost entirely by manager Brian Kerr, they rose from an encouraging performance at the 1996 under-18 European Championship, despite only netting once, with draws against Spain and Italy and a single-goal defeat to an England side featuring Michael Owen, Rio Ferdinand and Frank Lampard consigning them to a group-stage exit, and soon forced the aforementioned spell of relative continental ascendancy. Meanwhile, with Kerr as manager of all FIA youth levels between under-16 and under-20, the nation achieved a third placed finish at the subsequent 1997 FIFA World Youth Championship in Malaysia; ousting the socio-economic might of China and the USA after losing to the feverish talent of Ghana in the group stage opening match and claiming their revenge, after defeating both Morocco and Spain in the knockout stage, with a 2-1 third-fourth playoff victory against the Ghanaians. Each of their games at the tournament, aside from their 1-1 draw with China, was decided by a single-goal margin; steeliness, as opposed to proliferation, in abundance even against the eventual tournament winners Argentina, who boasted Juan Román Riquelme, Walter Samuel and Esteban Cambiasso in their ranks.
Kerr’s exploits, and the application he received in reciprocation, should not be undervalued in any context throughout this late 1990s period. One of the most evident talents of that World Youth Championship campaign was Damien Duff – who as we now know went on to compete on a continental level for each of his Premier League clubs in Blackburn, Chelsea, Newcastle and Fulham, and racked up an entire century of caps on the international scene – who would have also been selected for the 1998 under-18 tournament had it not been for a season-curtailing injury following his first season of full senior action at Blackburn. Replacing him with Freeman, who had struggled for exposure at Nottingham Forest in the preceding season and during the club’s immediate return to Premier League football, though leaving the winger uncapped throughout the tournament, proved the unwavering faith of Kerr in his existing squad at that time, even with the most highly experienced and arguably pivotal member of his squad giving the notice of only a few days before the competition of his irredeemable affliction. For a nation that mounted a challenge far beyond the capacity of their status as a relative minnow by population at any number of tournaments – only beaten by Lithuania and hosts Cyprus in this subordinate respect in 1998 – this depth, in both resilience and individual game-changing intuition, was unlikely, but delivered admirably by Kerr.
It was only logical, then, that the Dubliner, and then-49-year-old, was appointed senior Irish manager in January 2003, leading a generation that prised Keane, Dunne and Duff as its chief hopes into qualification campaigns for both Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup, at the very least. Granted, a vast proportion of the individuals he had coached to youth-group fruition had long since departed the international stage, but when supplemented by other prodigies within his programme that had seriously progressed at club level including John O’Shea and Clinton Morrison, and established internationals Kevin Kilbane, Matt Holland, Gary Breen – all thoroughly English – Shay Given and Kenny Cunningham, reasonably ambitious. In recuperating a nation and institution from the public embarrassment of the 2002 World Cup, in which Roy Keane’s acrimonious mid-tournament departure after clashing with manager Mick McCarthy became so infamous it gained the politically conspicuous phrasing ‘Saipan controversy’, Kerr had a significant task on his hands. Admired throughout the nation for his influence on youth, and his well-stated desire to aid the Irish domestic game with his position’s commanding prestige, his task felt the burden of events that led to McCarthy’s eventual departure, and required a highly unlikely run, trailing the Swiss, to reach Portugal for the 2004 finals. Long-distance trips to Georgia and Albania delivered four points; a hard-fought 2-1 victory and frustrating 0-0 tie followed two months later by a late 2-1 win against Albania, and commanding 2-0 triumph against the Georgians, both at Lansdowne Road – in 2007 demolished to make way for the Aviva Stadium. Ultimately, however, a 1-1 – when a win would have been most pivotal – suffered against Russia confounded hopes prior to a daunted trip and 2-0 defeat to Switzerland in the timid culmination of efforts.
If Russia and Switzerland had proved immovable forces for the Irish in 2003, however, France would join the Swiss to test Kerr’s forces for any hopes of making the flight to Germany for the summer of 2006. Four games in, and by the end of October, they were unbeaten, with home wins against Cyprus and the Faroe Islands bookending highly creditable – but arguably unambitious – draws in Basel (1-1) and Paris (0-0). By June 2005, Kerr’s reign was in turmoil; suffering the indignity of late Israeli comebacks home and away in three-month succession, even more culpable in the later match at Lansdowne after taking a 2-0 lead. A 2-0 victory in the Faroes, a Thierry Henry wunderstrike and nervy 1-0 win in Cyprus later, the equation came down to a final match; win at home against Switzerland and progress to the play-offs. Toiling away with all striking options – Keane, Morrison, Stephen Elliott and Doherty – exhausted, the event petered out to 0-0 draw; not good enough. With the public inquest finally arriving into Kerr’s perceived conservatism, and even protégé Duff lambasting his style, his FAI contract was not renewed in October 2005, thus bringing to a rather despondent and immediate end an eight-year association within the national set-up. The qualms that had existed in some quarters about a lack of prior senior management experience told, with the FAI made to look naïve in the decision – yet, arguably not in the context, given 2003’s other interviewees and leading candidates included Peter Reid, Bryan Robson and Philippe Troussier, all of whom went on to have dismal managerial stints; the former in the English lower leagues, as Thai national manager and in the emergence of Indian franchises, Robson at Bradford, West Brom and Sheffield United, with little Premier League/Championship prowess aside from in the Baggies’ 2004-05 ‘Great Escape’, and also at the Thai national team, and Troussier at the Qatari national team – prior to financial injections – and across Japanese and Chinese football. Some sins can then be forgiven, perhaps.
Employing the vast benefit of retrospect, it may have been misguided to believe that the squad upon which World Cup and European Championship finals attendance was hoped would benefit from a single individual’s regime, from youth grade football to senior action. Perhaps Kerr manipulated the FAI framework so considerably by 2003 that they had little choice but to promote him to senior responsibilities, or perhaps they could not see beyond a single vision for the mid-2000s and beyond. The ambition exercised by the administration in the interviewing process now appears half-hearted and decidedly uninspiring, and only with the 2008 appointment of Giovanni Trapattoni did the Irish footballing culture receive a true upset to its institutionalised tendencies. Granted, the Italian could be abrasive, but it may have been what the establishment required, and did come to amends in qualification for the 2012 European Championships – albeit not a proud tournament for the Irish to now gaze back upon, nor one that conjures up much joy.
Naturally, only a very slight selection of nations can ever make the grade for tournament finals appearances, and even fewer for trophy-laden accomplishment. Simply observe the scalps of Italy, the United States, Chile, the Netherlands, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon and Algeria taken in the most recent global qualification skirmish, and how inept an achievement as Syria’s can be rendered by an ultimate failure to prise open an unprecedented barrier. For all of these failures, granted, the likes of Iceland, Peru, Tunisia, Panama and Saudi Arabia profited, and such are the perils of exclusivity while refining the excellence demanded at such prestigious events, but one can hardly regard these achievements without exercising empathy for the neglected opportunity bequeathed to so many players. It is in occasions like these that sport gains its reputation as a fortunate individual’s speculation.
Within these tales, also, must be recounted the argument between the value of club football against international action, and where they overlay in respects of prestige. Glenn Whelan, Marc Wilson, Hal Robson-Kanu, David Cotterill and Alan Hutton are just five Home Nations encapsulations of the faith that can be reciprocated between individuals, having established respectable international careers despite experiencing often unfulfilling careers at a domestic level; particularly at the time of their greatest patriotic feats. Even Danny Welbeck – prior to his conspicuous English exclusion by Gareth Southgate – had shone brightest more often for Roy Hodgson’s Three Lions than for Manchester United or Arsenal, demonstrating the alignment of this phenomenon in nations more commonly regarded as around an elite level. The proportion of players who, on the evidence of silverware alone, are fortunate enough for every vital aspect to align for both club and country, is, quite naturally, minute; 54 players have completed the Champions League and World Cup double in the post-1990 era, while a notable number of those (Javi Martínez, Víctor Valdés, Juan Mata, Massimo Oddo, Filippo Inzaghi, Juliano Belletti, Roque Júnior, Paulo Sérgio and Andreas Möller) were not exactly starring features, with just 229 sum minutes of exposure, in an average of around 25 minutes, in their respective World Cup-winning campaigns. As the exploits in the English league structure of O’Reilly – making only nine senior appearances before falling down to semi-professional levels by 2003, and running out only 25 further times for Gravesend & Northfleet, Dagenham and Redbridge and Athlone Town in Ireland before retiring in 2009 – and the gradual declines of Heary, Donnelly, Gavin and Crossley to obscurity in their native nation demonstrate, the influence often wielded callously by elite academies, in this case West Ham, Huddersfield, Leeds, Middlesbrough and Celtic, proved detrimental to an entire generation of Irish footballers. This very circumstance of the sport may have cost Kerr his employment, and the Irish a place at the World Cup, down the line.
Kerr was not blameless in this, however. Nor can the wider FAI programme have escaped prosecution in this inquiry. Despite possessing one of the global game’s leading youth coaches of the era, the administration failed him, and other trainers under their employment, by denying the opportunity to instil a cohesive contingency strategy to support the individuals who progressed through each age group. Awareness of this psychological factor may have been in short supply at the time – especially as the ‘Class of ‘92’ were greeted as an entity of relatively miraculous emergence only five years prior – yet this did not excuse an altogether naïve national structure that proved all-too-often to prise accomplishment at the highest club level over tactical fluency, or historic contribution to their patriotic cause. Some may argue this inevitable, but the lack of a productive Irish programme, with a central focus on the players who would give their nation any opportunity of future attainment, did undoubtedly fail those who developed at such a young age.
Of players capped ten times or more from the previous 41 Irish senior call-ups, four distinct groups reveal the current pathways to senior representation; long-term figures within the system, those who suffered many years exiled post-youth before being instated, converts from English and Northern Irish birthplaces and those who experienced fortune in almost immediate promotion despite entering at later youth groups. The first society features, in all honesty, only Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick, now Burnley teammates who entered at the U15 phase and featured at each rung before the senior squad; the second boasts Darren Randolph, Jonathan Walters, Richard Keogh, Harry Arter, Wes Hoolahan, Stephen Ward and Glenn Whelan as lacking four, seven, six, eight, five, and the final duo three, years, respectively between their final under-21 cap and first senior call-up; the third possesses born-and-bred Northerners Kieron Westwood and Ciaran Clark, Coventry’s Cyrus Christie, Londoner Arter and Derry boys Shane Duffy and James McLean as dual-nationality loyalists, and the fourth boasts Paul McShane, David Meyler, Daryl Murphy and Seamus Coleman – playing at no level lower than U19 – as its active yield, and Kevin Doyle as a now-retired figure. From this evidence, and the presence of Aiden McGeady, having made his debut aged 18 in 2004, no evident contingency remains to define the Green Army’s existing delegation.
Whilst this may reflect the circumstances of the other Home Nations in only realising the importance of a consistent and accommodating system in recent years, little solace remains for those cast aside at the turn of the millennium. In the past twelve months, and Brady and Hendrick aside, only 25 caps were awarded to players at the time under the age of 25, with 16 of those for Duffy and Christie alone. Adverse to youth, perhaps, but Martin O’Neill cannot be blamed alone for the lack of youth breaking into the side. Processes appear to still be lacking to encourage elite-level youth development, and especially evident progression, with twelve of the last 21 players selected for the national under-21 squad born in England, and goalkeeper Liam Bossin in the outskirts of Brussels. This import culture has sustained the squad for numerous years now, and with an over-reliance on the likes of Londoner Declan Rice, Essex-born Josh Cullen and Mancunian Kieran O’Hara, inevitable questions will arise over the gravity of the patriotic cause at hand. Nor can those at the helm evade accusations of the perpetual vulnerability of the approach, considering the potential draw of English shores is these youngsters do amount to regular Premier League action, such as in Rice’s case. In near-on eight years now of Noel King’s management of the under-21 squad, also, the side have failed to qualify for the European Championship on four consecutive occasions, and have never truly come close either; trailing behind the likes of Montenegro, Slovenia, Serbia, Estonia, Armenia and Georgia in their respective groups, and making little discernible progress over King’s tenure. Having not faced Germany home or away in their current qualification phase for the 2019 competition in Italy and San Marino, they are perhaps best primed to finally qualify in a group also containing Norway, Israel, newcomers Kosovo and Azerbaijan. But these are nations they should be beating to reach the tournament itself.
Meanwhile, since 2002’s appearance at the U19 European Championship, and a fourth placed finish after ousting an English side in which Dean Ashton starred, only once have the Irish U19’s qualified for tournament football; 2011’s European Championship witnessing a semi-final exit to a star-studded Spanish outfit after third-fourth play-offs were removed. The profligacy of these two squads was also notable; the former producing only three senior representatives, and the latter only, to date, John Egan and Jeff Hendrick.
Within all of these examples, fundamental flaws are exposed within the system. Effectively, as many nations and sides now recognise in cohesive and pragmatic programmes, achievement at youth level is worthless in comparison with progression at senior level. Prioritising overly ambitious youth targets, and selecting only players at sufficiently prestigious academies, over the requisite senior achievements to, in paraphrasing an apt motto, inspire a generation, is evidently an ineffective mode of operation in any sporting administration. Certainly, the two go hand in hand in any effective institution, but without strategic management and intervention for the right cause, Irish football has gone nowhere, and cannot progress sufficiently to challenge the likes of Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Serbia and Croatia; nations, perhaps, with more effective domestic divisions, but without the access in close geographical and political proximity to such footballing fervour as the United Kingdom’s, without similarly successful socio-economic circumstances and – Sweden aside – without the historic sporting achievement as the Republic. Unless the FAI establishment recognises this immediately, the tribulations of their representatives will continue in painful remorse for many a consecutive qualification campaign. Fundamentally, the late 90s should be a testament to learn from, not an era to hail. This cultural disassociation may not require a revolution, but an evolution of the methods adopted. An evolution borne out of necessity. For such a highly independent species as the Irish, perhaps not easy, but certainly necessary.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!