Remembering Ireland's unheralded success at the FIFA under-20 World Cup in 2003

Irish top scorer Stephen Elliott shared memories of that tournament with Newstalk's Team 33

Ireland, 2003, FIFA, under-20,

Ireland team a few weeks before the tournament ©INPHO/Andrew Paton

When we close our eyes and remember the 1990s now, we can look back at that decade as a fairly golden age for Irish soccer.

While the Irish senior side had faded somewhat in the second half of the '90s, the first four years had seen two memorable World Cup adventures that are still talked about to this day.

But it was also the decade which saw this island produce the closest thing to a golden generation of young talent as has emerged here at any other time.

Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Richard Dunne, Stephen McPhail, Andy Reid, John O'Shea, Richie Sadlier, Colin Healy, Liam Miller and Gary Doherty all played their own parts in different Irish underage sides that mixed it with the traditional powers of the world and European game under Brian Kerr's tutelage.

Stephen Elliott was kind enough to drop by for a long-form interview on Team 33 in which we begin by looking back at the Irish under-20 side that went to the World Cup in 2003.

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The Ireland under-18s won the 1998 European Championship, while the under-16s had done so in their equivalent tournament the same year.

The world stage was also lit green, with a third place finish at the 1997 FIFA World Youth Championship in Malaysia, followed by a knockout round finish in Nigeria in 1999.

Many of the players from those tournaments went on to become national team stalwarts for the next decade - and more in some cases.

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As versatile ex-Tottenham and Norwich defender/striker Gary Doherty told us on Newstalk's Team 33 earlier this year of his own experiences with the 1998 and 1999 teams, "I think Brian [Kerr] was great at getting players motivated to play for Ireland - especially with Robbie [Keane], Duffer and Richard Dunne - who were pretty much playing for the national team first team at the time - but he always got that bit of Irish passion out of them, that they wanted to play at under-18 level and represent even at that level going down to the under-18s. And I always think we had our best players, that's why we always done so well at tournaments."  

Gary Doherty talked about what it was like in Nigeria for the Irish squad in 1999 - including his response to a question from Conor Neville about Richie Sadlier's story about one of the activities some players got up to in the team hotel...

A couple of weeks before the Doherty interview on Team 33, we met the aforementioned Duffer and for him, Ireland's presence at major underage tournaments in that era was indicative of the "quality of player coming through back then", adding that the trophy wins and successes "were unheard of if you look at the state of us now".

Indeed, since the turn of the Millennium, major progress at underage level has been few and far between for Ireland since Brian Kerr's talents moved on. 

One brief high point was a semi-final place in the under-19 Euros of 2011, although a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Spain ended the tournament on a sour taste.

Jeff Hendrick is the only current senior cap from that squad.

Nine years before that, the Boys in Green under-19s finished fourth at the 2002 Euros with a squad featuring future Ireland right-back Stephen Kelly, goalkeeper Wayne Henderson and former Ireland, Sunderland and Manchester City striker Stephen Elliott.

That squad was also the last one to make it to a FIFA World Youth Championship (or under-20 World Cup as it is known now) as their Euros showing qualified them for a global tilt the following year.

Brian Kerr and players celebrate victory against Germany in the 1998 under-18 final. In the background are Robbie Keane, Gary Doherty and Liam George ©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

This week, Elliott who won nine senior caps and scored one crucial World Cup qualifier goal for Ireland in 2005, was our special guest on Team 33 as we began by talking about the 2003 FIFA tournament.

The FIFA Under-20 World Cup is a prestigious tournament with many a world great having introduced themselves to elite international football via that route. Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Pablo Zabaleta and Ezequiel Garay were the stars of the Argentina side that won the 2005 edition, before reaching a World Cup final at senior level nine years later. 

Chelsea midfielder Oscar, Real Madrid's Casemiro and Liverpool star Philippe Coutinho are the current Brazil seniors that helped their nation to glory in the 2011 tournament.

And in 2013, France Euro 2016 squad members Paul Pogba, Samuel Umtiti and Lucas Digne guided Les Bleus to glory.

The 2003 edition in the United Arab Emirates was also star-studded. Argentina's squad had Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano and Pablo Zabaleta in it en route the semis. Andres Iniesta was part of a Spain midfield, seven years before scoring the winning goal in a World Cup final. Ultimate utility man James Milner was part of the England selection. 

Brazil were the winners that year, with two future Barcelona and Sevilla full-backs in the shape of Dani Alves and Adriano, as well as Manchester City midfielder Fernandinho.

Manager Gerry Smith is met by relations after arriving home from the tournament ©INPHO/Andrew Paton

But the first thing that struck Elliott and the rest of the Irish team upon arrival in the UAE was not ludicrously talented emerging talent from other countries.

"I just remember it being boiling hot. We got off the plane and a lot of teams from the continent might have been used to the hot weather. But all us Irish boys when we got off the plane, we were looking at each other going 'how are we going to play football in this?' So I think we had a week or so beforehand training and trying to acclimatise to the conditions and it was one of the best two or three weeks I can remember in youth football," he told us.

And with good reason, from a personal level.

Along with the aforementioned Wayne Henderson and Stephen Kelly, the team Elliott travelled with included some fellow future Ireland internationals as well as some recognisable names.

Stephen Elliott of Ireland and Oscar Diaz of Paraguay in a pre-tournament match ©INPHO/Andrew Paton

Glenn Whelan, Willo Flood, Keith Fahey, Eamon Zayed, and Kevin Doyle were also all selected in that squad that was coached by Gerry Smith.

While Elliott recalls all 24 qualified countries sharing the same hotel for the duration of the tournament, only three of those teams would initially be on Ireland's radar, given that they had to negotiate the group stage first.

That trio in Group E were an Ivory Coast that contained current Everton forward Arouna Kone and Cardiff City's Sol Bamba; Mexico who are regular qualifiers at this level; and Saudi Arabia who did not have far to travel as they bordered the host state.

Elliott suffered a setback early on however due to injury.

The Republic of Ireland Under 20 team arrive in Dublin airport after the World Youth Championship 11/12/2003
Pictured Stephen Elliott ©INPHO/Andrew Paton

"I can remember the start of that tournament when we were training, I actually nearly missed the tournament. Over there, I'd took a bang to my foot and there was talk of me having to pull out of the squad. Gerry Smith was the manager and Johnny McDonnell was the assistant manager at the time and I wasn't able to train for about five days before the start of the tournament," he said.

"Supposedly at the time I was the No 1 pick to play up front and the lads were desperate to get me fit. But I couldn't train and I tried to run on it. I was gutted at that age. You're playing in a World Cup and you think this is going to be taken away from you before it's even started.

"I remember the doctor had to take me down to the hospital in the UAE. I think we might have gone to Dubai and I had to get bone scans and X-rays on my foot to see what was wrong with me. But nothing showed up, so in the end, one of the doctors said 'we'll just whack an injection in.'"

The night before the opening game against Saudi Arabia, the injection would numb the pain and fortunately Elliott would be available to Ireland.

Within 18 minutes of play at the Sheikh Khalifa International Stadium, the Dubliner had scored. The Saudi side did pull one back shortly after the break.

But Elliott would grant Ireland a winning start with his second goal with 13 minutes to go.

"Obviously we done something right because we got off to a flier," he told Team 33.

"I managed to get a couple of goals myself but it was great times. It was our first real experience of that. There was a real crowd at the games. And when we played Saudi Arabia, the stadium was packed out - mainly full of the Saudis because they were next door [to UAE]. But there were a lot of Irish fans there that travelled over. I think there were a lot of people living in and around the area and it was just a great feeling winning that game and I think the game was put out live back home on Eurosport. We knew the whole country would have been watching."

Three days later at the same stadium with a crowd of over 10,000, Ireland avoided defeat again as they took on Ivory Coast.

Trailing 2-1 to goals from Kone (Stephen Paisley got the Ireland opener), Elliott was decisive once more as he netted the equaliser with 16 minutes to go.

That left the Boys in Green on four points and on the verge of qualifying for the knockout round.

Mexico were the last team standing in the way. Rather than stumble over the line, Ireland propelled themselves to the top of the standings with a 2-0 victory over their Central American opponents.

Paisley scored again and Stephen Kelly added the other to put Ireland on seven points and condemn Mexico to an exit as the bottom side in the group.

Glenn Whelan in a pre-tournament friendly against Paraguay ©INPHO/Andrew Paton

Colombia would be the opposition in the first knockout round and unfortunately that's where the 2003 journey ends.

It was an epic encounter though as Ireland went down fighting to the last.

Colombia were 2-0 up with three minutes to go of the '90 in the searing heat of the UAE.

But Kevin Doyle did what he would later do 14 times for the Irish seniors by pulling one back on 87 minutes.

And two minutes into stoppage time, future Crystal Palace and Leicester defender Paddy McCarthy equalised to force the match into extra-time.

Unfortunately for Ireland, Erwin Carillo would score the golden goal winner for Colombia to end the game 3-2 on 106 minutes.

While that and the subsequent Irish absence from later tournaments is a pity, 2003 would be invaluable for Elliott's generation.

"It was a great tournament and I'm in touch with a lot of the lads and it's probably still at this moment in my life, a big memory for me," he said.