John KellyComment


John KellyComment

Paul Lambert and Henrik Larsson were in no mood to hang around. After Celtic’s 73rd home game in Europe, they shook a few hands and immediately hurried off the pitch. It was a result that verged on the humiliating: a 0-0 stalemate, just the 12th draw in those 73 games that included 53 wins, against a team they hadn’t given a second thought to swatting aside.

The 56,000 home crowd had mostly dispersed as a group of players — most of whom they’d never heard of — sprinted to salute the pocket of 1,500 delirious away fans tucked into a corner of Celtic Park. It was just the second time their team had avoided defeat in an 11-game European history.

Meanwhile, Pat Dolan, the 30-year-old manager of St Patrick’s Athletic, pumped a fist in the direction of the red-shirted Saints hordes before launching into a defence of Irish football. “People know how passionately I care about Irish soccer,” he said. “Sometimes we’re described as leprechauns, we’re described as minnows... but my players were magnificent tonight. We’ve got a young man at the centre of defence, Colin Hawkins, and if (then Ireland manager) Mick McCarthy’s watching tonight... (Hawkins) is a colossus, my captain here, a man who should’ve gotten international caps — but it’s never too late.”

St Pat’s, with a fraction of the budget of Celtic — their home ground has a capacity 20 times less than Celtic Park — and a team made up of youngsters discarded by English clubs, gnarled lower-league strikers and wily League of Ireland veterans, had subdued a Celtic side that contained a former European Cup winner, as well as Larsson, Craig Burley and Alan Stubbs. “It’s about respect (for the League of Ireland),” Dolan said.

And for one glorious night, in July 1998, in the first qualifying round of the European Cup, they had earned just that. It was Dolan’s vision for St Pat’s and football in Ireland coming to fruition. Sadly, though, it couldn’t last.

Dolan had joined St Pat’s in the late 80s after a modest, injury-hit playing career in England. Brian Kerr, then in charge of the club in what was his first major coaching role, bridged a gap of 34 years to the club’s last league success when he guided them to the title in 1990.

Kerr left in 1996 — just after delivering another league title — to take over as Technical Director with the Football Association of Ireland. Injury, meanwhile, had ended Dolan’s playing career and he initially worked as a member of the club’s administrative staff, concentrating on marketing and promotion. It surprised many in the game in Ireland when he was appointed manager after Kerr left.

It was an exciting and hopeful time for Irish football straddling the new century: Dublin’s top clubs were creating history in Europe and a blooming of underage talent spawned a golden age of achievement for youth sides in international competition. In 1998, Kerr coached Ireland to the Under-16 and Under-18 European Championship titles, the first and only significant international trophies the country has ever won.

One year earlier, Hawkins was one of three players who would go on to join St Pat’s who played key roles in Ireland’s stunning third-place finish at the 1997 FIFA World Youth (under-20) Championships in Malaysia.

In their first game of that tournament, Kerr’s side came up against Ghana. The Africans, with a 16-year-old Stephen Appiah in the squad, had a fearsome reputation and were one of the favourites for the title. In contrast to the constellation of current and future stars arrayed all over the competition, Kerr brought to Malaysia an assortment of reserves, part-timers and lower league players who would go on to careers in landscape gardening and on the London Underground.

The careers of the three future Saints were in limbo at that point: Hawkins had been released by Coventry City; Trevor Molloy played with Athlone Town in the League of Ireland; Ireland’s captain, midfielder Thomas Morgan, wasn’t wanted by Blackburn Rovers.

Kerr tells an amusing tale about his pre-match team-talk before that first game. Aware that the team might be daunted by the reputation of the Ghanaians, he assured his youngsters that he’d watched their opponents a number of times and the hype wasn’t justified. The future Ireland senior manager was meticulous about his preparations but he also knew what made each player tick: when all the pre-match instructions had been relayed, he would turn to Duff — the youngest, shyest and most talented member of the squad — and to put him at ease, he would say, “Duffer, you can do whatever you like.” 

As it turned out, Ghana were as good as their billing. They were faster, more powerful and more technically gifted than almost every Irish player. Following Ireland’s 2-1 defeat, Kerr now had to convince his players Ghana were the best youth team he’d ever seen in his life. It was another man-management masterstroke and, somehow, it worked.

Imbued with confidence, they recovered to finish second in the group behind Ghana. They then defeated Morocco in the second round before facing Spain in the last eight. On paper it simply shouldn’t have been a contest: Spain had topped their group and then dispatched Canada in the last 16. They were supremely talented:  Javier Farinos, Gerard and Miguel Angulo would be in the Valencia side that would lose the European Cup final to Real Madrid less than three years later; David Albelda was on the bench for that final. 

Yet Ireland, backboned by two players — Hawkins and Morgan — who didn’t know where they would play their football the following season — or, even, if they would be making a living from the game — stunned the Spanish. Molloy, a kid playing with a side that has a 2,000 capacity ground in the midlands and that once drew 0-0 with AC Milan in a UEFA Cup game in 1974, scored the winning penalty.

Leo Franco, Esteban Cambiasso, Walter Samuel, Pablo Aimar, Juan Roman Riquelme, Diego Placente and Lionel Scaloni awaited Ireland in the semi-final. Between them, they would go on to amass almost 250 senior caps for Argentina. The South Americans had already knocked out an England side that included Michael Owen, Danny Murphy, Jamie Carragher and Kieron Dyer. Ireland’s squad would go on to accumulate 100 senior caps — every one of them belonging to Duff, the only player among them who went on to play top-flight football in England.

The game against the eventual champions was a step too far and so the extraordinary journey would end, by a quirk of fate, with a third-place play-off against Ghana. Kerr was left with an obvious dilemma: having earlier convinced his players that the Ghanaians were almost unbeatable, he now told his team they had improved immeasurably as the tournament went on and were a completely different side to the one that had lost that first game. Incredibly, the new tack worked and Ireland rounded off the tournament with a 2-1 win and third spot.

Meanwhile, Dolan was dreaming big. The acquisitions of a trio of players who had stood toe-to-toe with the world’s best young talent was gloriously ambitious. There were rumours of players earning £3,000 a week and of the club providing them with their own cars. Those kinds of expenses were unheard of in a league with attendances as often in the hundreds as in the thousands. TV revenue counted for little and prize money hardly made a dent into what it cost to run an Irish club.

A fourth player who had played in Malaysia, Canadian Jeff Clarke, was also brought in and played right-back at Celtic Park. It meant that, for a while, the League of Ireland could claim to have rubbed shoulders — however vicariously and at a couple of degrees of separation — with the best in the world.

St Pat’s were not the only League of Ireland side with lofty ambitions. On the same night as the stalemate in Glasgow, Shelbourne — situated a few miles across Dublin — stunned Glasgow Rangers by taking a 3-0 lead in a Uefa Cup qualifier at Prenton Park in Tranmere. Rangers eventually pulled it back to win 5-3 but it was a statement of intent by the Irish side; they went on to knock Hadjuk Split out of the European Cup in 2004 before eventually going out to a then formidable Deportivo La Coruna after holding the Spaniards 0-0 at home.

Roddy Collins — brother of former middleweight boxing world champion Steve — had similar ambitions for Shelbourne’s neighbours, Bohemians. In 2002, they became the first Irish club to field a fully professional side. In the short term, it worked and they achieved historic successive European away victories against Aberdeen and Kaiserslautern — still by far the most impressive results achieved by an Irish side in continental competition.

By 2007, though, financial realities had hit hard. The country was on the precipice of an economic disaster and clubs had speculated too wildly. Cork City, the biggest club in the south of the country, went bust. Teams scaled back operations and no longer was a mercenary approach viable. The flow of players from England’s lower leagues who could earn big money in Ireland slowed to a trickle.

The FAI took charge of running the league in 2007 but, since then, five more clubs have ceased to exist. Success, in Irish football, guarantees nothing; Sporting Fingal folded just 18 months after they won the FAI Cup at Lansdowne Road.

Hawkins never got that Irish senior cap but he did go back to Coventry before spells with Doncaster Rovers and Brighton, whom he left in 2010. Molloy followed Collins to Carlisle United and then went to Motherwell before returning to the domestic league. Morgan, meanwhile, the captain and Kerr’s general on the field in Malaysia, endured a difficult career and never hit those 1997 heights again.

Pat Dolan became chief executive of the Saints before another spell as manager when the club lost out on a league title after being docked points for fielding ineligible players. He tried to set up a merger with another local club, St Francis, to play under the moniker ‘Dublin Saints’ but there was too much resistance, particularly from Saints fans. Stints at Cork City and Waterford United followed before he embarked on a media career.

There has been more turbulence than smooth skies for the league in Ireland this century. Professionalism was never a viable long-term strategy. Not for a country with a population of just four million and not for a sport that competes with Gaelic games and with rugby, the popularity of which has grown exponentially over the past 20 years.

Now, clubs have to make the most of scarce resources. Derry City, having sold Paddy McCourt, Niall McGinn and James McClean in the past few years, have seen the benefit of investing in local players.

St Pat’s, too, are now well versed in a new reality. But, for one summer evening in July 1998, anything seemed possible.

John Kelly is a freelance sports journalist based in Dublin.  Follow him on Twitter @JKelly1882.