At a time when national team managers struggle to get players released from clubs to play international friendlies it is hardly surprising that B internationals have become a thing of the past. The selection of B teams was an opportunity that a number of previous Irish managers availed of with the fixtures providing a means for introducing new players to the international set-up.
Attendance of 10,000
One such example was in March 1990 when an Irish B team faced an England B team at Turner’s Cross. The Irish won 4-1 with goals from Alan McLoughlin, David Kelly and a brace from Niall Quinn. Each of the three goal scorers made Jack Charlton’s squad for the World Cup that summer, whilst two of the full-backs on display that day – Denis Irwin and Terry Phelan – both went on to be fixtures in the team by the time the 1994 World Cup arrived. However, it could be argued that a more fruitful and ultimately more successful B international took place during Mick McCarthy’s tenure in February 1998. McCarthy was two years into his reign as manager and had lost a World Cup play-off against Belgium three months earlier. He organised a B international against a Northern Ireland B team in the hope of finding one or two players that might strengthen his squad. A crowd of 10,000 packed into Tolka Park for the fixture, whilst a few hundred late arrivals were turned away due to the ground being full to capacity.
Robbie Keane and Damien Duff
The reason for such strong interest in the fixture was primarily attributed to two teenage stars that were on show in Dublin for the first time since making their breakthrough cross channel; an 18-year old Damien Duff from Blackburn Rovers and a 17-year old Robbie Keane from Wolverhampton Wanderers. Both players were selected in the starting 11 and they formed part of a front three on the night. A third teenager and future star of the Irish team was selected at centre-half, 18-year old Richard Dunne from Everton. It was also a fixture that provided a launch-pad for a number of other future full internationals including Nick Colgan, Rory Delap, Mark Kinsella, Graham Kavanagh and Steve Finnan. Gareth Farrelly of Aston Villa had previously won full international caps and he captained what was a young and inexperienced team.
- Subs: Willie Boland for Mark Kinsella, Neale Fenn for Sean Devine, Brendan Murphy for Nick Colgan, Steve Finnan for Graham Kavanagh, Aidan Lynch for Richard Dunne, Gareth Cronin for Dave Worrell.
The Next Generation
The Republic dominated the game on the night with Damien Duff terrorising the Northern Ireland left back with his link-up play with Robbie Keane particularly impressive. However, the Republic squandered a number of good opportunities and the fixture ended in a disappointing loss with Northern Ireland’s George O’Boyle scoring the only goal against the run of play. Despite the loss the crowd leaving Tolka Park was upbeat and confident that they had witnessed the emergence of some future stars. Mick McCarthy was also clearly impressed in his post-match interviews and expressed his delight with the flair and invention shown by the younger players. The following month McCarthy handed full international debuts to Duff, Keane, Kinsella, Kavanagh, Maybury and Delap in a friendly against the Czech Republic in Olomouc. By the time Ireland played their next competitive fixture, a Euro 2000 qualifier in September 1998, the starting 11 included Kinsella, Duff and Robbie Keane. On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Lansdowne Road they helped Ireland to a 2-0 victory over a talented Croatia team that had finished third in the World Cup just two months previously.
There is little doubt that the aforementioned players were destined to go on and have good international careers but the relatively low key B international against Northern Ireland helped to fast-track their progress. The fixture also assisted Mick McCarthy in finding a crop of players that helped make Ireland very competitive. This was not only in evidence in the home win against Croatia but in a series of subsequent competitive results against Yugoslavia, Portugal and Holland in the three years that followed. During this period, the impact of Duff and Keane was significant, whilst the likes of Kinsella, Finnan and Dunne played prominent roles in Ireland’s qualification for the World Cup in 2002.
It is noteworthy that the players that played in the B international in February 1998 went on to win a combined total of 472 full international caps for the Republic of Ireland. This figure is of course still growing thanks to Robbie Keane’s continued exploits. When considering the low number of new players filtering through to Martin O’Neill’s current set-up the lack of underage talent is often cited, as well as the pressure of securing results and trying to retain a respectable world ranking. However, one ventures that if O’Neill had access to players for an annual B international it could only be of assistance in building a stronger playing pool. As with the 1998 fixture B internationals would provide an intermediate step for the more talented U-21 players, whilst keeping the older players and late developer’s on the radar.
- Author: Alan Hannify