In the latest look back on historic moments in Irish football, Gareth Maher highlights why the Republic of Ireland Under 19’s run to the 2011 European Championship semi-finals were important.
Flashback by Gareth Maher (Freelance)
What is the one event in Irish football that sticks out for you?
It might not be something that squeezes into the top 10 of memorable events in Irish football, but the Republic of Ireland Under 19’s march to the semi-finals of the UEFA European Championships in 2011 stands out.
Why was it so significant?
There had been success at underage level before, but this was Ireland’s first appearance at a major tournament since 2002 and even being there was an achievement in itself. Few people, myself included, expected Paul Doolin’s band of youngsters to finish top of their Elite Phase qualifying group that included Italy, Ukraine, and Poland, but they did.
In fact, Ireland didn’t even concede a goal in those three crucial qualifiers. It quickly sunk in that underestimating any team managed by Doolin was quite foolish indeed. Yet, even he must have been surprised that they did so well at the finals in Bucharest, where a victory over Greece and a draw with hosts Romania was enough to set up a last-four clash with eventual winners Spain.
And there was no shame whatsoever in losing to a Spanish side that included Arsenal’s Ignasi Miquel, Barcelona’s Gerard Deulofeu, and Real Madrid duo Daniel Carvajal and Alvaro Morata. If Matt Doherty had not been suspended, Ireland might have lost by a smaller margin, but Spain, in all honesty, were far too good and deserved their 5-0 win. Still, Ireland could leave the finals with their heads held high.
Who were the major people involved and what impact did they have?
Without doubt, Doolin was the chief reason why the team went as far as they did. The former Drogheda United boss had only taken over a few months previous, but his influence was noticeable straight away. From the professional approach off the pitch to the precise tactics on it, Doolin shaped a team that believed it belonged at the top amongst Europe’s elite.
Often when it comes to tournaments, everyone has a part to play and Doolin’s back-room staff were key in that regard. Kitman Jacko Smyth, for example, was someone who took on a multitude of roles and helped a young group of players feel at ease in what was the biggest event in their careers to that point.
In that squad, the main players were captain John Egan, fellow defender Anthony O’Connor, goalkeeper Aaron McCarey, and the midfield quartet of Jeff Hendrick, John O’Sullivan, Samir Carruthers and Sean Murray. Every player except back-up keeper Sean McDermott and right-back Declan Walker got to play, but it was the commitment, passion, and togetherness forged by the team’s leaders that made the difference.
Is there a particular moment from that event that stands out?
Funnily enough, one of the moments that immediately springs to mind is when I was a doing a live radio report for RTE during the group game against Czech Republic. I was just reeling off superlatives to Jimmy Magee about how good the team were playing when the Czechs scored twice in three minutes to take a 2-1 lead. Suddenly, I was trying to figure out the points difference to explain if Ireland could make it out of Group A or not. I’m sure the radio listeners back in Ireland thought that I had just had a panic attack of some kind.
Another notable moment was the scoreless draw against Romania that sent Doolin’s side into the semi-finals. It wasn’t pretty but showed the type of fight that existed in the team. As a journalist, you always try to remain neutral in order to be balanced in your reporting, although I admit that I felt extremely proud of the Irish players after that draw as I walked across the pitch at full-time and saw them collapse with exhaustion under the searing heat.
Was it an event that caught the attention of the Irish public?
To an extent it was. A tournament involving Under 19 players is never going to rival the accomplishment of the senior team qualifying for Italia ’90, but Irish people do tend to have a sharp radar when it comes to sporting achievements. And this story of the underdogs defying the European order was picked up by the national media – thanks largely to the core of journalists and photographers who were in Bucharest for its duration – and their games were also shown live on EuroSport.
What was the knock-on effect from it?
No trophies were brought home, but pride was certainly restored to the Irish set-up. It had been misplaced since the glory years under Brian Kerr, although that confidence was back again. It is something that the players involved, some of whom have gone on to be capped at senior level, still talk about now as it made them believe what was possible in international football.
Looking back on it, is there anything that still surprises you about it?
There will always be the ‘what if’ questions about whether Shane Duffy and Robbie Brady could have added an extra dimension to the team’s play – perhaps even to upset Spain – but their exclusion should never overshadow what the players did achieve. Doolin definitely got the best out of them and the one thing that still surprises about it is that they did it without a prolific striker.
If one puts the tournament into context, Ireland only won their opening game, lost twice, and drew once, but what their performances did could not be explained in results. And due to that I’m still surprised that Doolin was not approached by clubs in England, Scotland or further afield – especially on the back of his success in the League of Ireland with Drogheda.
And did anything interesting happen in later years to those involved?
Well, Doolin continues to manage the Under 19’s – doing an excellent job too. He has brought each of his subsequent teams to the Elite Phase qualifiers, but has yet to reach another finals tournament. Surely, though, it’s only a matter of time before he does it again.
Of the players, 15 of them have played senior football in the UK, including Samir Carruthers featuring in the Premier League with Aston Villa. Fourteen of the players have been capped at Under 21 level, while Hendrick has represented the senior team with a few others expected to follow in his footsteps.
Check out previous Flashbacks from SWAI members…
Noel Spillane on Brian Kerr’s youngsters at the FIFA World Youth Cup
Arthur Duffy on Derry City’s memorable UEFA Cup run
Philip Quinn on the night Ireland qualified for Italia ’90
*Image courtesy of Sportsfile