No Republic of Ireland player has competed in the UEFA Champions League group stages since the 2014/15 season. However, only 12 nations, or former nations, have a greater number of Champions League winners than the Republic of Ireland. Irish players have made their mark in the UEFA Champions League down the years. Whether it be Roy Keane’s talismanic performance in Manchester United’s semi-final victory over Juventus in 1999, or the iconic moment of John O’Shea nutmegging Luis Figo, the Irish have traded blows with the very best that Europe has had to offer over time. In this piece, we will list all 11 Irishmen to be officially presented with a UEFA Champions League winners medal. All 11 Irishmen won their Champions League medals with either Liverpool (6) or Manchester United (5).
Caoimhin Kelleher, Liverpool – 2019.
Despite not playing a game, Liverpool’s Caoimhin Kelleher received a medal from last season’s successful Champions League campaign. The rules deciding how a player qualifies for a medal have changed over the years. Kelleher’s medal makes him, officially, the 11th Irishman to earn a UEFA Champions League/European Cup winners medal.
The 2019 Champions League campaign will be an experience for the 20 year old to cherish for a lifetime. The young, Irish goalkeeper had Alisson Becker and Simon Mignolet ahead of him in the pecking order. However, Kelleher was a part of the team, and he has the medal to prove it.
John O’Shea, Manchester United – 2008
As mentioned earlier, O’Shea’s will be immortalised by his rinsing of Figo in United’s 2002/03 Champions League campaign. It was an iconic moment which the Irish legend will definitely be proud of. However, one moment which may eclipse that, is when he got to lift the iconic trophy in 2008.
By 2008, O’Shea had become a regular, reliable member of the Manchester United squad. He was a valuable utility player in one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest ever sides. In the 2007/08 Champions League campaign, O’Shea featured in 6 games. O’Shea played at both full-back positions, and centrally, over the 6 games in which he featured. Though he was benched for the final, nobody will question the hard-working O’Shea’s worthiness of a medal.
Steve Finnan, Liverpool – 2005
Winning his medal 14 years ago, Liverpool’s Steve Finnan is the last Irishman to have started in a successful Champions League final. The story of that final in Istanbul has become lore among Liverpool fans. Needless to say, the final very nearly wasn’t as successful as it ended up being. However, an incredible comeback allows Liverpool to claim one of the Champions League’s most iconic nights.
Finnan not only started in the final, but the Limerick man was also an ever-present throughout the campaign. Finnan featured in all 13 of Liverpool’s European fixtures that season. Finnan was an integral part of 2005’s successful Liverpool squad.
Denis Irwin, Manchester United – 1999
Another Irish full-back who got his hands on a Champions League winners’ medal, is Denis Irwin. Irwin’s storied Manchester United career was one deserving of the highest honours. Over his 12 years with Manchester United, Irwin earned himself a reputation as ‘Mr.Consistent’. By 1999, Irwin was always one of the first names on Sir Alex’s team sheet.
Irwin is likely the greatest Irish full-back of all time. On top of that, Irwin is one of Ireland’s few, truly world-class footballers. His career was honoured with an induction into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2016. However, it’s safe to say that the Cork native’s Champions League honour will be much more cherished.
Roy Keane, Manchester United – 1999
Irwin wasn’t the only Cork native on United’s famous team of 1999. Roy Keane more than played his part, in the heart of the United midfield in 1999. Though Keane was suspended for the final, his performance in the semi-final, alone, was worthy of a medal.
Keane picked up an early yellow card in United’s semi-final vs Juventus, which ruled him out of the final. Keane’s performance in that game, following the yellow card, has gone down in history as one of the greatest ever performances in a Manchester United shirt.
Keane pulled United through the final in the way only a captain like him can. His semi-final performance ensured United would travel to Barcelona to contest the 1999 Champions League final. The rest, as they say, is history.
Mark Lawrenson, Liverpool – 1984
The Champions League winning team with the highest contingent of Irishmen was Liverpool’s team of 1984. The first of 3 Irishmen who earned themselves a Champions League winners medal that season, is Mark Lawrenson. Lawrenson was a solid, reliable member of the 1984 Liverpool team.
Lawrenson was born in Preston, England. However, he qualified to play for Ireland through his grandfather. Lawrenson went on to make 39 appearances for the Republic of Ireland’s national team. It appears as though Irishmen don’t win the European Cup the easy way. 1999 and 2005 were two of the Champions League’s most iconic comebacks. While similarly to 2008, the 1984 final was decided by a penalty shoot-out.
Ronnie Whelan, Liverpool – 1984
Ronnie Whelan started on the left wing for Liverpool in the 1984 European Cup final. These days, Whelan will be most known for his contributions to RTE Sport. However, the Dubliner had a 15 year career with Liverpool, between 1979 and 1994.
Whelan was a regular member of the Liverpool squad over his 15 year tenure. He accumulated a total of 493 first-team appearances, scoring a respectable 46 goals. As you’d expect, Whelan earned many accolades over his Liverpool career. His medal cabinet features 6 First Division titles, 2 FA Cups and 3 League Cups. However, we’re confident his sole European Cup winners’ medal occupies a special place.
Michael Robinson, Liverpool – 1984
Michael Robinson is the only one of three Irishmen to earn a medal in 1984, who didn’t start the game. The Irish striker was behind Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish in the pecking order at Anfield. Robinson only appeared in the game once the extra-time period had begun. He was a 94th minute replacement for Kenny Dalglish, in what was a lacklustre extra-time period.
Robinson ended up spending just one full season at Liverpool. He subsequently transferred to QPR, due to frustrations over his lack of playing time, midway through the 1984/85 season. Robinson collected a First Division winners’ medal, a League Cup winners’ medal and a European Cup winners’ medal in 1984. They would be the only three honours of his career.
Steve Heighway, Liverpool – 1977, 1978
Steve Heighway is the only Irishman to have won the European Cup/Champions League on more than one occasion. Heighway was an important member of Liverpool’s squad throughout the entirety of the 1970s. The tricky, Dublin born winger played for Liverpool between 1970 and 1981. In that time Heighway scored 50 goals for his club.
Heighway played a vital role in Liverpool’s first European Cup victory. The Irish winger made 2 assists in the 1977 final, helping Liverpool to a 3-1 victory over Borussia Monchengladbach. Heighway played in all 9 of Liverpool’s European Cup fixtures in the 1976/77 season.
He was once again an ever-present member of the Liverpool squad in the 1977/78 season. Heighway picked up just one goal in the 1977/78 campaign. Despite his performance in the previous year, and starting in all of Liverpool’s previous European games that season, he only made a substitute appearance in the 1978 final. Regardless, Liverpool retained their European Cup in 1978 with a 1-0 victory over Belgian side club Brugge. Heighway’s substitute appearance allowed him to collect his second European Cup winners’ medal.
Heighway subsequently stayed with Liverpool until 1982. He was squad member, and played in 3 games, in Liverpool’s third European Cup winning season of 1980/81. That would be enough to have gotten Heighway a third European Cup winners’ medal today. However, the rule back then was that you had to play in the final to receive a medal. As a result, Heighway had to settle for just two European Cup winners’ medals. Regardless, he is the first and only Irishman to collect more than one European Cup/Champions League winners’ medal.
Shay Brennan, Manchester United – 1968
One of the first two Irishmen to win the European Cup/Champions League, was Shay Brennan. Brennan was one of two Irishmen who were a part of Sir Matt Busby’s famous 1968 European Cup winning side. Brennan was born and raised in Manchester. He subsequently came up through the youth ranks with Manchester United. Brennan qualified to play for Ireland through his parentage.
Brennan made his debut for the first-team in 1958, due to the tragedy of the Munich air disaster. Brennan’s debut came in United’s first game following the tragedy vs Sheffield Wednesday. Naturally a full-back, Brennan had to play as a left-winger as a member of a thrown together United team. A decade later, Brennan started at right-back as United rose to become champions of Europe. Brennan stayed with United until 1970, when he moved to Waterford. Brennan played with Waterford FC, until his retirement in 1974. Brennan passed away in 2000, and was tragically the first member of the 1968 European Cup winning side to pass away.
Tony Dunne, Manchester United – 1968
The other Irish member of Manchester United’s 1968 European Cup winning side, was Tony Dunne. Dunne started the 1968 final opposite to Brennan, as the left full-back. Dunne joined Manchester United from Dublin side Shelbourne in 1960. He would go on to spend 13 years in Manchester. The Dublin native is 8th in the list of all-time appearances for Manchester United. He made a total of 530 appearances over his 13 years in Manchester.
Dunne played every minute, of every game in Manchester United’s successful European Cup winning season of 1967/68. He was an indispensable and highly valued member of Sir Matt Busby’s side. He and Brennan are fitting men to be able to claim to be the first two Irishmen to win the European Cup.