When it comes to international football in Britain and Ireland we often read about the ‘Golden Generation’ of English football. But what about the Irish equivalent? The struggles of the Irish national team have made fans yearn for the halcyon days of Big Jack Charlton. But was his truly the Golden Generation of Irish football?
While on paper Charlton had more talent at his disposal than any other Ireland manager, Mick McCarthy’s 2002 World Cup team was united, well organised, had a clear plan and overcame controversy to achieve success.
The big names produced. The green Irish jersey seemed to bring the best out the players and galvanise the squad. People rightly point to the performances of Robbie Keane and Damien Duff but there were performances from others that drove the success of the team.
It was a group of players that played at a higher level than any of the current crop of Irish players have reached thus far. Ireland had three players named in the PFA Team of the Year in 2001/02: Shay Given; Steve Finnan and Roy Keane. Given had just had a fantastic season helping unlikely title challengers Newcastle United to ultimately finish fourth. The Donegal stopper was one of the Premier League's top goalkeepers for much of his career, and, while David Forde has done admirably in his stead recently, Given at his peak was amongst the best.
The back four had competition for places. The aforementioned Finnan had just come off an impressive debut season in the top league in England with Fulham and later secured a move to Liverpool, where he would enjoy great success culminating in winning the UEFA Champions League. Finnan only made the squad due to Tottenham Hotspur’s Stephen Carr being injured, such was Ireland's strength at full back.
The in-form man couldn't even win a starting place in the opening game against Cameroon; a Leeds United uncle-nephew axis had a firm hold on both full back berths. Gary Kelly and Ian Harte had already established themselves in Mick McCarthy's defence and played important roles in the Yorkshire club's runs to the semi-finals of both the Champions League and the UEFA Cup.
In the middle, the team was guided by the experienced duo of Steve Staunton and Gary Breen. Although this is perhaps one position in which Ireland became stronger in later years, with the emergence of Richard Dunne (who was in the squad but was fourth choice) and Kenny Cunningham (who saw limited action off the bench), Staunton and Breen exceeded any expectations at the tournament. Staunton became the first Irishman to reach 100 caps and bowed out a hero – a status sadly now lost – and Breen bagged himself a goal in the key victory against Saudi Arabia.
At the heart of the midfield, however, was a gaping hole: Ireland were without the team's inspirational leader, Roy Keane. At the peak of his powers, the Manchester United captain was amongst the best in the world in his position and his absence makes many a fan look back and yearn for what might have been.
But this is where the real strength in depth of this Irish team showed. Although neither player reached the same dizzy heights as Keane, Mark Kinsella and Matt Holland were club captains at two Premier League teams and enjoyed good careers in the top flight. Holland's memorable goal in the opening game against Cameroon sent many an early morning fry-up and pint go flying.
Fans often talk about these two and reference their hard work off the ball, but the short passing that both players excelled at kept the young team moving at pace and allowed the side to play with width. Jason McAteer ultimately lost his place to Finnan, but he will never have to buy a drink in Ireland again thanks to his goal against Holland in the qualifying campaign. Kevin Kilbane was well on his way to becoming a cult hero in the eyes of Irish fans.
The Sunderland pair's discipline in the wide areas gave extra cover to a back four that could be exposed by pace, especially when the full backs were further forward. Emerging from the bench in many of the games, and earning himself a move to the Premier League, was Steven Reid. The Millwall midfielder was a late replacement for the injured Mark Kennedy and his strong running and energy off the bench became a weapon for McCarthy against tiring defences. He nearly scored a memorable free kick in the opening game.
But the jewel in the crown of that Irish squad was the brilliant forward duo of Duff and Keane. Keane has been somewhat nomadic in his transfers but was one of the top strikers in the Premier League for a number of years and is, sadly, still Ireland's biggest goalscoring threat.
Duff’s career was blighted by injuries but few Irish players have moved viewers to the edges of their seats quite like he could. 2002 was his time to shine and he shone bright, later moving to Chelsea as part of the Roman revolution, and, along with Arjen Robben, frightening back fours for a couple of season before losing his place.
The sight of Keane and Duff running rings around defenders will be fondly remembered by Irish fans for years to come. The wide runs of Duff and the ever-dangerous runs off the shoulder by Keane set the stage for the regular introduction of the old horse, Niall Quinn. Another Irish legend, Quinn would do the same as Staunton and retire after the tournament. At the time he was the country's all-time top scorer and his physical presence and clichéd “good touch for a big man” caused problems for defenders in the latter stages of games.
His impact was key and he flicked the ball on for Keane to score the unforgettable last-minute equaliser against Germany. His presence genuinely frightened the sense out of Fernando Hierro, a world class defender, in the Round of 16.
Ultimately, that’s where the journey ended for Ireland's Golden Generation. But, looking back, there must be little doubt that this was the country's finest team. So many memories were made at that tournament and, unfortunately, it could be some time before Ireland experience the euphoric highs and devastating lows of 2002 again.