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Friday 18 August 2017

Ireland's class of 2007 who lived the American dream

Ireland players (l-r) Joe Lapira, Peter Murphy, Stephen Kelly, Joe O’Cearuill, Andy Keogh and Darren Potter go for a walk from their team hotel ahead of their US Cup game against Bolivia back in May 2007. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Ireland players (l-r) Joe Lapira, Peter Murphy, Stephen Kelly, Joe O’Cearuill, Andy Keogh and Darren Potter go for a walk from their team hotel ahead of their US Cup game against Bolivia back in May 2007. Photo: SPORTSFILE

They travelled to the USA, like so many Irishmen before, with hope in their hearts.

The group of Irish sportsmen came home from America this week ten years ago as recognised international footballers. The fact that a chunk of them never played for their country again is only one of the side-stories of the remarkable tour of the USA by the Steve Staunton-managed Ireland side in May 2007.

"I don't think I will ever forget that trip," says current Cork City defender Alan Bennett, who made his debut in the US while at Reading.

"It was a good trip, two great games and two decent results. It all happened very quickly for me and I think that adds to the story for me, that there wasn't a long build-up.

"I won two caps over there, I was proud to be there but wouldn't call myself an Ireland international, I think that to really be an international you need to have played in games that really mattered."

The tour began with a hastily-assembled squad leaving Dublin, then included the US-born college player Joey Lapira winning a most unlikely senior cap as the first amateur to play for the Republic since 1964, and finished in haste with Ireland coach Kevin MacDonald performing media and other admin duties at the end of the tour, as boss Staunton had to leave Boston before the end of the final game of that two-match tour as he needed to catch a flight back to the UK to complete a coaching course.

It was also an end for some: nine of the players who played for the Republic in that tour in May 2007 would never be capped again.

The lead-in to the USA trip suggested a smooth ride. Ireland had recovered from that dismal display away to San Marino in February of that year to record back to back wins in the qualifiers, beating Wales and Slovakia with clean sheets in front of an aggregate crowd of over 140,000 at Croke Park.

So Staunton was reasonably upbeat when he named his 23-man squad for the trip on May 8th.

Senior players like Damien Duff, Robbie Keane and Shay Given were unavailable but despite naming nine uncapped players in his initial panel, Staunton still had a decent chunk of experience to hand - but just 15 of that original 23-strong squad would travel.

Derek Geary and Caleb Folan pulled out as did Liam Miller, Stephen Elliott and Stephen Ireland, and John O'Shea would also withdraw.

Ireland manager Steve Staunton, pictured before the US Cup game against Bolivia at the Gillette Stadium, Boston, Masschusetts, on May 26, 2007. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Ireland manager Steve Staunton, pictured before the US Cup game against Bolivia at the Gillette Stadium, Boston, Masschusetts, on May 26, 2007. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Rookies like Joe Gamble (Cork City) and Stephen O'Halloran (Aston Villa) got an early-ish summons, but it was a late call for Bennett (Reading), Peter Murphy (Carlisle) and Stephen Gleeson (Wolves).

They were lucky: a late attempt, a very late one, was made to bring on board defender Graham Gartland, then with Drogheda United. But Gartland had gone to a family wedding, had his mobile phone switched off, the FAI were unable to make contact to tell him he was needed within a matter of hours, so Gartland missed out on a senior cap. Roy O'Donovan, then in fine form with Cork City but about to move to Sunderland, complained about his exclusion.

If there was a stand-by list, no one knew and Bennett was lucky to get there. "I was out walking in Cork when I got the call from the FAI, though I'd had a text from Kevin Doyle to warn me just before that," says Bennett.

"Before I knew it I was in a car heading up to Dublin, I got a lift with a friend of mine, and flew out the next day."

Despite all of the chaos, the football was not a total disaster. In the first game, against Ecuador in New York, Kevin Doyle scored to equalise for Ireland in a 1-1 draw, a reported crowd of 22,000 for that game.

In the second match, played on a Saturday, Shane Long earned his first international goal, also in a 1-1 draw, against Bolivia, though the estimated attendance for the game in Boston's Gillette Stadium was just 1,500 as more punters (estimated at 14,000) were in their seats when club side New England Revolution kicked off that same day.

Eleven players made their debuts on the US tour (Colin Doyle, Alex Bruce, Alan Bennett, Stephen O'Halloran, Joe O Cearuill, Peter Murphy, Darren Potter, Joe Gamble, Stephen Gleeson, Joey Lapira and Daryl Murphy) but a chunk of those capped (9) would never wear green again. Including the much-maligned Lapira, whose post-Ireland career peaked with a spell in the Norwegian second division.

"Joe didn't know what he was walking into, he thought he was coming in to train with us and he got to play, against Ecuador," says Bennett. "He's probably still dining out on that story, but good luck to him."

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