Shortly after 10pm on 26 July, 1998, Liam George felt he had the world at his feet. The Luton Town striker held his nerve from the penalty spot, placing the ball past Timo Hildebrand, as the Republic of Ireland U18's defeated Germany in the European Championship Final.

A first-ever title for the country, the teenager was on the crest of a wave.

"Footballers might have 20-year careers, they might make lots of money and enjoy themselves, but when you win something that's special, it is a moment you never, ever forget," he says on reflection on that glorious moment in Larnaca, Cyprus.

Strange as it sounds, I know how Lionel Messi feels, how Wayne Rooney feels winning the Champions League. I know that winning feeling. That's why it is the most special moment in my life.

 

 

Three weeks later he broke his leg. 

His career never came anywhere close to recapturing that magical moment, with injuries, loss of form and politics contributing to his downfall. The striker turned out for 12 different clubs in a five-year period after departing from Luton before he finally hung up his boots as a professional in 2006.

"I had no one at that stage to stay stop, breathe. I was so busy dusting myself down trying to prove people wrong, I got lost."

Liam George's career would be seriously curtailed by injuries, which impacted his playing time and self-confidence, so it was rather apt that he decided to pursue a career in physiotherapy once his playing days drew to a close in 2006

Based in Luton, Liam George Physiotherapy was set-up in 2013 and he has found another passion to replace playing.

"I was always in and out of the treatment room so it has turned me into someone who is passionate about injury, just as I was about football at the time. I have fallen in love with something else."

Image - Liam George celebrates European glory with Republic of Ireland U18 manager Brian Kerr

Liam George celebrates European glory with Republic of Ireland U18 manager Brian Kerr

Liam George's introduction to the Irish set-up is one which brings a smile to his face.

Victor George arrived in London from St Lucia in the 1950's, which is where he met his future wife Anne, a native of Church Street in the heart of Dublin city centre. They married in Luton and raised three children, with the youngest Liam quickly displaying talent on the football pitch that saw him join Luton's youth academy.

The story goes that George's uncle had a conversation with a close friend of Brian Kerr to say that his nephew was playing with Luton and was one to watch in his role as Republic of Ireland U-18 manager.

"Brian's ears pricked up a little bit and he kept an eye on me," George says.

Kerr travelled to Luton and the young striker was in good form at the time. The club went on a decent run in the FA Youth Cup and the Irish manager needed little convincing.

I never felt connected to England in any way shape or form. I was brought up in an Irish household, went to a Catholic school.

Turns out Ireland weren't the only ones interested as England signalled their interest in the Luton-born player with a strong London accent.

"I never felt connected to England in any way shape or form. I was brought up in an Irish household, went to a Catholic school."

"I had a very small Jack Grealish situation where I had been asked by both federations to attend."

Was it a difficult decision to choose green over white?

"It was straightforward," he says with conviction. "My cousins were from Dublin, I went home [Dublin] every school holiday. I'd have an England kit on sometimes from my brother, but I always felt Irish. I never felt connected to England in any way shape or form. I was brought up in an Irish household, went to a Catholic school. A lot of people find it really strange that I don't feel connected to England, apart from the fact I live here."

"Home" was always Dublin and England's interest at the time is more of a bigger deal in hindsight than a confidence booster at that particular stage in his development.

"I looked at the people in that England squad at that time and I thought I was better than them. So I thought then I should be involved at international level. Maybe I was over-confident, but I didn't feel any of their players were beyond my capabilities."

Aged 17, he was called into Ian Evans' U21 squad for experience – "it was quite daunting" - but it was with the U18's he really found his feet, playing in all the games on the road to qualification for the 1998 European Championships.

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In the eight-team tournament, Kerr's side found themselves in Group B along with Croatia, hosts Cyprus and England.

George insists there was no fear within the squad, perhaps not surprising given the quality of player at Kerr's disposal.  Alex O'Reilly was commanding in goals, shielded by a central defensive partnership of Gary Doherty and Richard Dunne.

Midfield creativity was afforded through Liverpool prodigy Richie Partridge, with Barry Quinn and Stephen McPhail orchestrating events in the middle of the park. George quickly struck up an understanding with a certain Robbie Keane.

Image - Robbie Keane making a splash in Cyprus during the European Championships

Robbie Keane making a splash in Cyprus during the European Championships

"Robbie and I were very similar players and worked well off each other. If I went short, he would run in behind and vice versa."

The Luton man insists the bond created by the management team had a huge bearing on what would unfold that summer.

"Brian Kerr is a master, and Noel O'Reilly, God bless him, at making a family.

"Even when there was chopping and changing in the team, you never felt it was about you, or that people were left out. You always felt part of the family. No matter how well you were playing at club level, and I was injured for a lot of that time, and I never once felt like my place in the squad was in jeopardy.

"I always felt connected, that what they were geniuses at. It was a phenomenal connection with some unbelievable players."

Image - Barry Quinn and Liam George

Barry Quinn and Liam George

"It was like we can play teams off the park if we get the chance, but we can also sit in, defend, and beat sides on the counter attack."

George bagged a brace in the opening game, a 5-2 victory over Croatia, as Kerr allowed his attacking players the freedom of expression.


"The Irish team had many heroes on the night, but Richie Partridge, Robbie Keane and Liam George were remarkable, running rings around a Croatian defence which came into the match with a miserly reputation" - Irish Independent.

A second minute header got Ireland off to a dream start in the competition, while his second strike was a real moment of class, a mazy run that saw three defenders trail in his wake before unleashing an unstoppable shot to the roof of the net.

"You always want to get off to a good start and it sets your whole tournament up. Those first goals give you a chance to doubt and quieten doubts. You feel like your place at the table is worthwhile."

Two days later and the clash with England was the big one. While they knew little about the players with the other competing nations, this was certainly not the case with the searing heat of the Cypriot evening. There was a club crossover on both teams and George was a Luton team-mate of England captain Matthew Upson. Future full internationals Michael Ball, Jonathan Woodgate and Seth Johnson were among the starters that night. Another, Alan Smith, came off the bench to snatch the winner with five minutes remaining.

Image - Matthew Upson was a key figure for England in defence.

Matthew Upson was a key figure for England in defence.

"We didn't feel inferior to them. It was a close game and they certainly didn't play us off the park."

England began the final round of group games on top with six points, but their 3-0 defeat to Croatia, coupled with Ireland's 3-0 success over Cyprus in Aiya Napa, meant there was a three-way tie in Group B. The healthier goal difference placed Ireland top, while England packed their bags.

With no semi-finals – Croatia took the 3rd/4th place play-off on penalties - it meant a final showdown against Germany, live on RTÉ.

In energy sapping conditions, Ireland took the game to their more vaunted opponents. Alan Quinn's strike 20 minutes from time looked to be the match-winner, until the German's struck in the final minute. Extra-time loomed with energy levels dropping quickly.

Image - George is sandwiched by Marcel Rapp, left, and Sebastian Deisler

George is sandwiched by Marcel Rapp, left, and Sebastian Deisler

"It was a ridiculously hot day. When they equalised, I felt hard done by because I scored a goal in that game that wasn't offside. Every time I look back on it I think, 'I should have been the hero'. It was a case of we haven't lost, we aren't out of it. They were just as much dead on their feet as we were. If you ever watch the extra-time, it was toe-to-toe. None of us tried to win the game because I don't think we had the energy."

With penalties required to determine the outcome, Kerr wanted to know which of his weary troops felt confident to step-up. Without hesitation, George, always confident from 12 yards, signalled his intention.

Image - Assistant manager Noel O'Reilly and players during the penalty shoot out

Assistant manager Noel O'Reilly and players during the penalty shoot out

"I still don't know why I said it, but I put my hand up and said I'd go last. Maybe I wasn't expecting Robbie to miss."

O'Reilly saved Germany's first spot-kick, while substitutes Casey and Paul Connolly put Ireland 2-0 after the Germans hit the post with their second attempt. Keane failed to convert before skipper Quinn ensured it was just a blip to restore their cushion. It came down to the dreadlocked forward to seal the deal.

George duly put the ball to Timo Hildebrand's left and history was assured.

'Champions, by George' ran the Irish Independent headline, and the player admits the aftermath was nothing short of surreal.

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"My brother was someone I looked up to, the alpha male, it was the first time I ever saw my big brother cry. It was a really, really special moment. We realised, 'wow, something has happened here and it is beyond us and this little squad of players'. It touched more people than we realised."

"I got to win something for my country, my family that everyone still talks about today when I go home. Players might have 20 year careers, they might make lots of money and enjoy themselves, but when you win something that's special, it is a moment you never, ever forget.

"Strange as it sounds, I know how Lionel Messi feels, how Wayne Rooney feels winning the Champions League. I know that winning feeling. That's why it is the most special moment in my life."

He couldn't have any idea of what lay in store.

Image - Left to right: Barry Quinn, Robbie Keane, Alex O'Reilly, Dr O'Callaghan, Gary Doherty, Liam George,

Left to right: Barry Quinn, Robbie Keane, Alex O'Reilly, Dr O'Callaghan, Gary Doherty, Liam George,

He couldn't have any idea of what lay in store.

"You feel indestructible. You think you will have a big career ahead of you and life will be great, but unfortunately for me, three weeks later, I broke my leg."

He battled back and his time at Luton would turn out to be the most productive of his career before his departure in 2001. After that it was nothing but toil, twelve clubs in five years as he struggled to recapture past glories. He reckons he played around 20 games in all that time.

"The highs keep you going in those darker days, the fact that you have had some early success, you have done things other people haven't done. That's what keeps you believing."

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A move to St Patrick's Athletic in 2003 was seen as a fresh start. Eamonn Collins was keen to add the striker to his squad ahead of the first season of summer football, and George felt he could reinvent himself and spend time with his Irish family. It was one of many false dawns

"It was one of those poisonous times in my life. My confidence was gone and I was still trying to climb back up to that level in his career. It's not that I regret it. It came about at a point in my life where I was only a shell of the person I thought I was."

A meeting with his former mentor Kerr confirmed his own suspicions that the spark was gone.

"I didn't realise I was lost. I had no one at that stage to stay stop, breathe. I was so busy dusting myself down trying to prove people wrong, I got lost."

A nomadic experience back in England failed to quench his appetite to succeed. "Football was all that mattered. It was all only ever about getting my mojo back. I didn't care where I lived or how far I had to travel. I just wanted that opportunity."

 

A more interesting opportunity presented itself in the second tier of American soccer with the Atlanta Silverbacks in 2006. After a bright start, a groin injury put paid to that. "It only takes little things to push you off course".

Paul Lambert extended the olive branch with Wycombe Wanderers, but despite showing well in training and in trial games, the international deadline was missed by three days. With three months to wait until the transfer window opened, it proved to be the final straw.

"I couldn't keep driving to Wycombe for the next four months of my life, pay for it all, in the hope of something happening. That was the nail in the coffin."

A friend and mentor pointed out something out to me after I finished. 'The problem you have,' he said, 'is that you always work on your weaknesses and not your strengths'.

Image - George in action for Luton Town in 1999

George in action for Luton Town in 1999

While George was hanging up his boots as a professional, his strike partner from 1998 was continuing to bang in the goals for club and country as Tottenham Hotspur would narrowly miss out of a Champions League place.

A significant difference in outlook he feels is one of the reasons why his careers went in such different direction to Robbie Keane's.

"A friend and mentor pointed out something out to me after I finished. 'The problem you have,' he said, 'is that you always work on your weaknesses and not your strengths'.

"That's where I lost myself in my football career. I was so busy trying to do things I wasn't very good at doing to try and improve, I forgot about the things I was good at. I look at someone like Robbie Keane, who scored goals all his career and he always stayed true to scoring goals. He was always on the shoulder of defenders looking to sniff out chances.

"As your confidence goes, you try to do things you think your managers want you to do, rather than actually what you can do."

Image - L-R: Alex O'Reilly, Liam George Thomas Heary and Paul Donnelly at the recent 1998 team reunion

L-R: Alex O'Reilly, Liam George Thomas Heary and Paul Donnelly at the recent 1998 team reunion

Liam George lives five minutes from Kenilworth Road and goes to a few games every season, sometimes dabbling in a bit of local radio, but he is happy with his lot.

One day a week helping out the medical team at AFC Wimbledon is as close as he gets to a full-time set-up, which is just the way he wants to keep it.

"Football is in my blood. I love watching and playing, but I don't think I could give my life back to football. I don't think I could work in football full-time. As a player I sacrificed enough. I don't think I could do that as a physio."

The passion for his country hasn't diminished in the slightest and keeps a close eye on Irish results, especially at underage level. He has a vested interested in the female game too with his second cousin Harriet Lambe an U17 international.

"I've started watching rugby recently to have the bragging rights over the English people that live around me".

His subsequent career didn't plan out as hoped, but George and his team-mates will always have that memorable day in Cyprus.

"Whenever anyone talks to me about that day, the feeling floods back and makes it ever-present. The positive vibe returns to make it such a special moment."

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U18 European Championship Final 1998, GSZ Stadium, Larnaca

Republic of Ireland 1-1 Germany (Ireland win 4-3 on penalties)

Republic of Ireland: Alex O'Reilly (West Ham United); Thomas Heary (Huddersfield), Richard Dunne (Everton), Jason Gavin (Middlesborough), Keith Doyle (St Patrick's Athletic); Ger Crossley (Celtic), Barry Quinn (Coventry City, captain), Stephen McPhail (Leeds United), Richie Partridge (Liverpool); Robbie Keane (Wolves), Liam George (Luton Town).

Subs: Alan Quinn (Sheffield Wednesday) for Crosley (half-time); Paul Donnolly (Leeds United) for McPhail 68 mins; Ryan Casey (Swansea City) for Partridge 6 mins into extra-time.

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