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By George, Larnaca win one of the best

Beating the Germans Larnaca, Cyprus, July 28, 1998 Germany U-18 1 Ireland U-18 1 (Ireland win 4-3 on penalties)

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KING GEORGE: Liam George, manager Brian Kerr (right) and assistant coach Noel O’Reilly (centre) celebrate after being crowned European U-18 Champions in 1998.

KING GEORGE: Liam George, manager Brian Kerr (right) and assistant coach Noel O’Reilly (centre) celebrate after being crowned European U-18 Champions in 1998.

KING GEORGE: Liam George, manager Brian Kerr (right) and assistant coach Noel O’Reilly (centre) celebrate after being crowned European U-18 Champions in 1998.

Liam George doesn't want or need, pity and sympathy for the fact that 'The Big Time,' whatever that really means, never came to his door.

The striker did have achievements in his playing career. He played in the top flight in Ireland and in England's second tier. He also played for Ireland, which gratefully adopted this English-born player through the bloodline of his Dublin mother, at various levels.

Retirement from playing didn't mean misery as the Luton man enjoys a very successful career as a physio. His tale is not one of woe.

But for those lovers of football in this country, whose memory goes beyond the mere confines of Euro '88 and Italia '90, George's name is etched with pride in stone.

The Republic of Ireland winning the U-18 European Championship title in the wilting July heat in Cyprus in 1998 took a lot of effort from a lot of people - the road to qualification starting off in the cold and dire poverty of qualifiers in Moldova the previous October, and the success was a group effort.

Yet the honour of being The One, the owner of the single pair of boots which sealed the deal, and made Ireland champions of Europe fell to George, whose penalty in a shoot-out against Germany in the final was the crucial one.

Timing is everything in football, for those who play and those to watch.

Juggle

State exams in the summers of 1988 (Inter Cert) and 1990 (Leaving Cert) left me trying to juggle studies with watching Ireland play and I was in college for the summer of USA '94.

But when Brian Kerr was working utter miracles with his Ireland underage teams in 1998, I was now in a position to watch the games properly as part of my job.

Kerr, his staff and his players do not get the credit they deserve for what they achieved in '98, as the Republic of Ireland became the first nation to win the U-16 and U-18 Euro titles in the same year (only Spain has done it since).

It is another stain on the Delaney-era of the FAI that, because Kerr was persona non grata in the FAI, the association did nothing whatsoever to mark the 20th anniversary of those championship wins in Scotland and Cyprus.

Not one word in the FAI's match programmes, nothing on their website, no on-field presentation for Kerr and his teams, that job was left to the Soccer Writers' Association who arranged the reunion which the FAI couldn't be bothered to do because the regime didn't like Brian Kerr.

Because what happened on a very hot evening in Larnaca in July 1998 was one of the most remarkable nights I've seen in Irish football.

At one stage the dream appeared to be dead, as a 1-0 win for Howard Wilkinson's England side (Alan Smith scored the goal) over Ireland in the second group game looked to have buried the Irish.

With a tight format (three group games and then the two group winners advancing to the final), there was no place to hide.

For the last group game Ireland needed to beat Cyprus and hope that England lost to Croatia. As he spoke to the Irish press pack, arrogance came from every pore of Wilkinson's being, leaving a stain on our notebooks and tape recorders. I don't think I ever wanted England to lose more.

The teams were staying in the same hotel in Larnaca so that English swagger was unavoidable.

Those of us present recall the contrasting images - the England players standing on their hotel balconies, swigging beer and taunting the Irish with flags and songs of bravado, like the worst English stag party imaginable but one made up of teenage footballers.

At ground level, the Irish players humbly sat around the swimming pool, legs dangling in the water, quietly singing Christy Moore songs as the great Noel O'Reilly played guitar. Prejudice and pride.

Revenge came. Ireland beat Cyprus, Croatia tore England apart, and Ireland went on to face Germany in the final. The final was a real test, of skill and character. Scoreless with 20 minutes to go, Ireland took the lead, a goal worth repeated viewings on YouTube.

Robbie Keane took the ball not far from the halfway line, linked in with Alan Quinn and Liam George, bravely shrugged off three defenders inside the box and played a short pass for Alan Quinn to score. If a parent wants to show their kid what street football means, show them what Keane did to selflessly set up the goal.

That European title was in sight but Germany pounced, two minutes into injury time, to score against a fatigued Irish side and sent the game to extra time and penalties. Those of us who were in Larnaca that night were drenched in sweat and demented by nerves.

Back home, in front of the TV, a nation did hold its breath. Just as Bill O'Herlihy told the country that the Ireland-Romania game going to penalties in 1990 meant that Alf and Home And Away were deferred, Des Cahill informed RTÉ viewers that showjumping from Millstreet and The Sunday Game would follow once the Irish U-18s were done.

In a shootout, the man whose talent had driven Ireland to that point, Keane missed his penalty but George brushed off the weight on his shoulders to stroke home his kick as if it was just in his back garden.

Ireland were champions of Europe and it was a privilege to be there.

In this series, our writers have selected their favourite sporting moment at which they were in attendance, either in the press box or in the stand