Joe Hodge proved the coolest man in scorching Yerevan by striking a sweet equaliser in Ireland’s Euro U19 finals opener against Norway last night. An eighth-minute opener from Erik Botheim had the Boys in Green heading for defeat but the 16-year-old drilled home a 20-yard drive with nine minutes left.
The Manchester City midfielder was only making his debut at this level having been drafted in late. He was one of three U17 players called up following a glut of withdrawals due to clubs not releasing their players for the tournament.
Next up for Ireland is France on Thursday before they conclude the group against Czech Republic on Sunday. The draw keeps them in the mix to claim one of the two berths on offer into the semi-finals at the eight-nation showpiece.
“I think we deserved the point on the strength of our second-half performance,” said boss Tom Mohan. “The first 20 minutes was a rocky period because Norway pinned us back. They played with a high press and we found it very difficult to break out. We felt our best chance of getting at Norway was down the sides by overloading wide areas. That’s where the equaliser came from.”
Mohan was thankful to Hodge for the intervention. Thrusting him into the fray ahead of older players was a brave call but the manager knew the Manchester-born teen had the tools to cope.
“It was a fantastic goal from a fantastic player,” he beamed.
For a 16-year-old to come up with the goods under such pressure, with such great technique and composure, shows what a talent he is.
“Anybody who saw Joe playing for us at the U17 Euro finals in May quickly knew what an excellent player he is. I realise he’s giving two years away but he’s got great game intelligence and awareness. He’s simply a technically gifted player.”
Hodge, eligible for Ireland through his Dublin-born grandmother Bernadette Hanlen, flanked captain Lee O’Connor in the midfielder. Norway utilised their wing-backs for width to gain a foothold and the Vikings, fifth at last year’s tournament, profited from the pressure by soaring into the lead. When Ireland failed to deal with Halldor Stenevik’s deep cross to the back, Edvard Tagseth squared the ball across the six-yard box for Botheim to stab home his first-time volley.
Recent Leicester City signing Ali Reghba was Ireland’s main attacking outlet on the right wing. He charged through just two minutes after the opener but squandered his delivery, crossing straight into the hands of goalkeeper Kristoffer Klaesson. Jonathan Afolabi was equally wasteful on 15 minutes and there was nobody to seize the loose ball when Klaesson spilled the centre.
Reghba created Ireland’s best chance of equalising in the first half. Another bursting run from deep saw him sprint into the box but he was halted by a last-ditch tackle from Manchester City defender Colin Rosler.
Afolabi forced Klaesson into his first save of note two minutes after the restart. Ireland’s sole striker powered past two defenders and his left-foot strike got turned around the post by the netminder. Ireland kept pushing, helped by the energy substitute of Matt Everitt, and earned their reward through Hodge’s gem.
Reghba was again to the fore, nipping past his marker on the right and sailing in a cross which Rosler only half-cleared. Hodge was first to react, controlling the stray ball 25 yards out before slamming a crisp drive into the bottom corner. Both nations fashioned a couple of half-chances to nick the win but the Norwegians came closest.
A dipping shot from substitute Mikael Ugland left goalkeeper Brian Maher stagnant on his line and he was mightily relieved to watch the screamer rebound off the post.
B Maher; A Lyons, M McGuinness, O McEntee, J James (M Everitt 61); L O’Connor, J Hodge; A Reghba, B Kavanagh, K Ledwidge (Andrew Omobamidele 90); J Afolabi.
K Klaesson; E Sandberg, C Rosler, J Fredriksen; H Stenevik (M Pedersen 90), J Hove, M Solbakkken (M Ugland 79), E Tagseth; J Kitolano; J Larsen, E Botheim (NJ Holm 65).
N Dabanovic (MNE)