There will be no quarter-final place for Ireland in the U17 European Championships for a third year in a row after the hosts could only manage a third draw in a row and bowed out of this year’s tournament.
It was a monumental effort against a superior Belgian side by the young boys in green, who came from a goal down to set up an edge of the seat conclusion.
But they couldn’t find the second goal and the win they needed to stay in the competition.
O’Brien said afterwards: “The players are just bitterly disappointed at the moment but again to show the character to come back, they just gave their all.
“We asked them all to give a man of the match performance and the team did that, and I’m very proud of them.”
Having had to absorb the sucker punch of a stoppage time equaliser in their opening draw with Greece before going on to suffer the lowest of low blows with the late sending off of Festy Ebosele in another 1-1 draw, this time against the Czech Republic, the Irish were entitled to feel they were due a break going into the decisive game against the Group A top seeds.
But, along with Ebosele, they were also missing another influential attacking player in the suspended Conor Carty, with Norwich’s Josh Giurgi and Sunderland’s Sean Kennedy getting their first starts of the tournament.
And there was change in Colin O’Brien’s team at the other end of the pitch too with Timi Sobowale back from injury at centre-half and Jimmy Corcoran, so controversially dismissed in the quarter-finals last year, regaining his spot between the posts in place of Gavin Bazunu.
After torrential afternoon rain had soaked the surface in Tallaght, the sun came out for kick off and, early on, Brighton’s Matt Everitt further brightened the mood of the crowd of 4,885 with some of those sinuous runs which are fast becoming his trademark.
But down Ireland’s right flank the fleet-footed Jeremy Doku, a hugely-talented Anderlecht 16-year-old who has attracted interest of Liverpool, was proving an even bigger threat for Belgium, Corcoran doing well to parry his goal-bound effort in the 18th minute before Joe Hodge did even better to clear Thibo Baeten’s point-blank shot on the rebound off the line.
A succession of corners underlined Belgium’s growing dominance in the game, the Irish defence at times put to the pin of its collar to keep the scoreboard bare but, with just four minutes to go before the break, and after a typically forceful drive forward by skipper Seamas Keogh, Giurgi cut inside to remind Maarten Vandevoordt he was still in a game with a curving shot which the Belgian ‘keeper, at full stretch, did well to hold.
Ireland looked to regain the initiative at the start of the second half, applying a concerted spell of pressure on the Belgian goal but, as the tables turned again, Andrew Omobamidele had to make a hat-trick of superlative blocks to prevent the Red Devils claiming the breakthrough.
And, for all Ireland’s stout resistance, it duly arrived in the 64th minute, that man Doku the inevitable architect as he set up Chris Kalulika for a close-range finish.
The hosts responded magnificently, however, Timi Sobowale arriving at the far post with perfect timing in the 74th minute to turn James Furlong’s free into the net.
Ireland still needed a victory to go through and, playing with admirable finesse and plenty of fire — a necessary go for broke approach which also left them open to menacing counter-attacks — they had the crowd on their feet as they gave it everything in pursuit of that second crucial goal. But, sadly, in this week of memorable comebacks, they were unable to complete one of their own.
Vandevoordt, Siquet (Bahadir 88), Landu, Sardella, Nizet, Kana, George, Ait El Hadj (De Wolf), Kalulika, Doku, Baeten (Engolo 70).
REP OF IRELAND:
Bazunu; Omobamidele, Sobowale, Furlong, Hodge, Keogh (Idowu 85), Kennedy (McNulty 88), McCann (McKinley 66), Giurgi (Holt 66), Everitt Referee: Krzysztof Jakubik