Ireland begin their U17 European Championship finals crusade today by meeting Belgium in Group C at Loughborough University (5.45pm). Influential midfielder Barry Coffey (16) is relishing the challenge as he continues his incredible development since moving from Nenagh AFC to Celtic 12 months ago.
Q: Barry, this is the biggest tournament in European football for your age-group, how does it feel to be part of it?
I’m here to soak it all in and am raring to go. We met up on Tuesday and flew to England the following day so everything is geared towards this first game against a tough Belgium side. It’s crazy to think that over a couple of years I’ve come from the U15 international squad to this stage and the experience is something I want to take in.
Q: Ireland have qualified with an impressive record of six wins from six matches throughout the preliminary and elite phase. You’ve started all of those games, helping the team from midfield, so have you a big part to play in the finals?
It was great getting the nod from the manager Colin O’Brien for those matches and I’d like to think that I played my part along the way to these finals. This has been a major team effort and that will be needed again in a difficult group.
Q: What were the most difficult games during the qualifying phases?
Well, the squad were tested when we fell a goal behind in the first stage against Ukraine. We never doubted ourselves and came back to win 3-1. Also, the last game against Poland was a decider for which of us would progress to the finals at top seeds and we managed to beat them. There was a lot of pressure on us because Poland had a home crowd behind them but we got over the line and that can only be a good thing.
Q: Belgium have developed into one of the strongest nations in the world for producing talented footballers. What are you expecting today?
We’ll be up against a quality team. You only have to look at the names they have at big clubs around Europe, but we’ll be ready for the challenge.
Q: As a lad from Nenagh in Co Tipperary, hurling must have a big feature of your upbringing. Tell us about the influence of that code in your family and on your sporting career.
It was huge. My dad (Noel) won some titles in his time for Nenagh and my sister (Maeve) plays camogie. Last year, my brother Andrew was appointed captain of the Tipperary Under-21s and spent time on the senior panel. Hurling is the bread and butter of Tipperary sport and I enjoyed playing it while growing up. Even nowadays in Glasgow, I’d get the hurl out and have a puck around.
For me, though, football was the game I fell in love with. There was never any decision to make between the two codes and my family supported me on that. You only get a small window of opportunity to go into professional football and I set my sights on that goal.
Q: Indeed, you attracted attention from the big UK clubs from an early age, figuring for Chelsea at a tournament in Holland. What was it about Celtic that convinced you to join them?
I went on a few trips with different clubs to see which place suits me best. I never felt out of place on any of them, however big the club was, and developed bits of wisdom for each trial. I got to play against some of Europe’s best teams but didn’t get caught up in the occasions. I was able to add things to my locker and it drove me on the make the right choice.
I supported Celtic growing up and they made me feel very welcome. The first-team manager played a part but there was other staff like Willie McStay who helped me make my mind up. I’ve been there a year now and haven’t suffered at all from homesickness.
Q: How much of an influence is Brendan Rodgers around the club and it must be pleasing that he’s committed to staying on in the face of reported interest from Arsenal?
It helps that he knows me from the time I decided to join and he’d also be available to have a word. Most other managers of clubs in the Champions League would concentrate solely on the first-team but I’ve seen Brendan attending the training sessions of our U13 squads. It does motivate you that he’s going to stay there because he can see how much work you’re putting trying to get a shot at progressing.
Q: You’re playing mainly for Celtic’s U17s but does it help that in the past you’ve featured for older teams, in particular winning the U17 FAI Cup with Nenagh having just turned 15?
I was always a big lad growing up and never afraid to play above my age-group. My managers Shay Coffey and John Delaney gave me confidence to perform at that level by putting me into the team and the experience still stands to me. Winning the national cup for my hometown club was the icing on the cake before I came over to Celtic.
Q: Finally, while it happened before you were born, this is the 20th anniversary of Ireland winning the tournament (then U16). Have you watched footage of Brian Kerr’s team lifting the trophy in Scotland and would it inspire you at this tournament in England
To be honest, I haven’t seen that nor the Ireland games at last year’s finals but that’s because I always try to look forward. What happened in the past is gone and we’ve to concentrate on this tournament. Due to this being held in England, we should get a lot of family and friends over to support us. Now that we’re here, we’ve to make the most of it.
Ireland may rely heavily on the granny rule at senior and U21 level but all bar one of this 20-player U17 squad picked by Cork-born manager Colin O’Brien were born in this country. Following today’s game, they face Denmark on Tuesday before concluding Group C against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Friday.
The top two teams from each of four pools qualify for the quarter-finals.
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