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Saturday 16 December 2017

Malaysian marvels who took on the whole world

(l-r) Dr Conal Hooper is pictured with two members of the 1997 Under-20 Ireland team, Trevor Molloy and Dessie Bake
(l-r) Dr Conal Hooper is pictured with two members of the 1997 Under-20 Ireland team, Trevor Molloy and Dessie Bake

Of all the honours which Damien Duff picked up in his proud career, only one memento has pride of place on the wall of his family home: the bronze medal he won with the Ireland U20 side at the World Cup finals in Malaysia 20 years ago.

The nation's best-ever finish at World Cup level in football, that team of Malaysian marvels are back on home soil this week for a 20-year reunion, honouring the players like Duff, Thomas Morgan, Colin Hawkins, Trevor Molloy, Dessie Baker and many more; players who went further than the likes of Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher, Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet at the finals in Malaysia and won the hearts of the Irish public.

"For me it was kinda the start of my journey, I had just made my [Blackburn] first team debut and then literally went straight down to training in Limerick to meet the lads. So I've the medal still up on the wall at home, possibly nothing else," says Duff of that summer in Asia. Despite their success at U20 level, only two members of the squad went on to win senior caps, Duff and Glen Crowe. "If people ask, I tell them that me and Damien have 102 caps between us, I don't say that I only got two," jokes Crowe. "But it was a brilliant time, I loved every minute of it out there, to do that on the world stage, against brilliant teams like Spain and Argentina, was exceptional."

For Kerr, the fact that only two of his players would be capped is irrelevant. "It doesn't matter," he says. "I knew they weren't exceptional players, but I knew they were an exceptional team."

Kerr,who was only in the job as youth team boss for a matter of months, had problems before the squad even travelled, as eligible players such as Ian Harte, Kevin Kilbane, David Connolly and Alan Mahon, all eligible, were unable to travel.

(l-r) Members of the 1997 Ireland Under-20 team Colin Hawkins and Robbie Ryan.
(l-r) Members of the 1997 Ireland Under-20 team Colin Hawkins and Robbie Ryan.

So lads who had been released by their English clubs (Colin Hawkins, Thomas Morgan, Paul Whelan) joined in with UK-based prospects (Damien Duff, Neale Fenn, Niall Inman and a three-strong contingent from Huddersfield Town) and League of Ireland lads (Trevor Molloy, Aidan Lynch, Dessie Baker).

Despite a defeat to Ghana in the first group game, the squad just clicked, they recovered to beat the USA and China to make it into the knock-out round. There they beat Morocco and Spain, before losing to a very talented Argentina side in the semi-finals but again regrouped to beat Ghana in a third-place play-off.

"We all came together and so for me it was a massive achievement that, in that space of time, we were able to come together and gel, and to play for each other," says team captain Thomas Morgan.

For boss Kerr, it was a big deal.

"I loved it at the time and I still look back at it with great fondness. It was a pathway for me to better things and that's why I respect the player so much. Without the players delivering I wouldn't have got the opportunities I did later," he added.

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