An Underage Genius Passes
A GREAT football man left the field of life this week with the passing of coaching legend Noel O'Reilly in Dublin's Mater Hospital on Friday evening.
A truly remarkable character, Noel was involved in some of the greatest days in Irish football as right hand man to underage supremo Brian Kerr.
A balding eagle if ever there was one, O'Reilly was one of those jovial characters who lived for the game and only for the game.
A man with a perpetual penchant for good humor and a great ear for a song, he was one of those guys who just knew how to get the best out of kids.
That's exactly what he did in Cyprus and in Scotland a decade ago when Kerr's bright young things won the European under-18 and under-16 championship double.
A lot was made at the time of that success, a first for the Irish game, but too often we forget just how much O'Reilly and Kerr achieved in that glorious summer.
They brought together two immensely talented squads and turned that talent into gold, literally into gold medals, against the very best young footballers on offer in Europe.
Some of their players, like Robbie Keane and Richard Dunne from the 18s and John O'Shea and Andy Reid from the 16s, are now household names.
Others like Liam George who were big stars at the time have drifted out of the game altogether, their 15 minutes of fame confined to past glories.
What Kerr and O'Reilly achieved in Cyprus and in Scotland is probably up there with the achievements of Jack Charlton in Germany, Italy and America and Mick McCarthy in Japan and Korea.
Some could argue that their success was even greater simply because Ireland won both those tournaments, and also made it to the last four when they were in charge of the under-20s in Malaysia in 1997.
It is hard to evaluate the performances of an underage team in a senior context so we'll leave that one for another day, but there is no denying the influence O'Reilly and Kerr had on Irish football in those halcyon days.
What's sad here is that their underage achievements made it impossible for the FAI not to give Kerr the senior job when McCarthy quit after the Swiss debacle at Lansdowne Road in 2002.
Kerr was a shoo-in for the job based on his previous record with Irish underage teams, but it was his failure to emulate that success with the seniors that will forever blot his place in our footballing history.
O'Reilly was part of that senior set-up as well and, like his old friend Brian, he found it impossible to say no when the senior coaching job came calling.
In truth both men were always going to find it difficult to get a bunch of pampered Premiership prima donnas to play with the same belief and emotion that was part and parcel of their success with the under-20s, the under-18s and the under-16s, and it is unfair of us all to judge them on their senior achievements or the lack thereof.
Instead O'Reilly's career should be remembered, and fondly at that, for the wonderful job he did with the teams that brought home not one but two European Championships for Ireland.
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