Republic of Ireland 1 Azerbaijan 0: It took until the last second of the final minute in injury time but U21 defender Shaun Donnellan ensured the good times for Irish underage football continued last night.
Azerbaijan’s game-plan of frustrating an Irish side chasing a first-ever qualification almost came to fruition until the West Brom defender scrambled in the scruffiest of goals.
He nodded in amid a goalmouth scramble when a header by substitute Ronan Hale was tipped onto the post.
Donnellan was on hand to head across the line before his central-defensive partner Ryan Sweeney followed in to make sure.
With Germany being held to a draw by Kosovo last night, this last-gasp Ireland victory reduced the gap on the Euro group leaders to three points with a game in hand.
Two of the last four qualifiers for Noel King’s side are against reigning champions Germany, giving them a chance to usurp the superpower for an automatic route to Italy next year. There is also the possibility of reaching the tournament through a play-off.
Even if it was an unintended consequence of Ireland failing to reach a World Cup that will soon come to the forefront of global attention, having the underage teams gain some spotlight in the past week at least reminded the public of what’s bubbling beneath the mainstream.
There was a time not too long ago when Uefa qualifying groups for the U17s and U19s didn’t clash with senior internationals but the growth of club power across Europe resulted in the international windows applying to all. If clubs in England and Spain are to lose their best players, then they won’t mind the training grounds being ghost towns for set weeks during the season.
The low-key nature of the friendly in Turkey last Friday, coupled with the FAI opting against organising a second match in this particular window, allowed space for the youngsters to embrace the limelight.
In particular, the feats of the U17 team have caught the imagination. They won their sixth qualifier in a row yesterday to confirm a passage into the European Championships in May as winners of the pool.
Colin O’Brien’s cubs had already been assured of a place at the showpiece in England by virtue of victories over Macedonia and Georgia but beating the Poles in their back yard should put a spring in their step ahead of the draw on April 5.
They will need all the pluses they can get to compete at the final if recent history is anything to go by.
Ireland ended a seven-year drought in reaching the Euros in 2015, an accomplishment facilitated by Uefa doubling the number of finalists to 16.
They repeated the success last year and once again this week, making it three triumphs in four years.
At the 2015 and 2017 tournaments, however, Ireland struggled badly.
Tom Mohan, since promoted to the U19 post, led the team to Bulgaria where they began with an encouraging draw against Netherlands only to lose against Italy and England. Last year, there was signs of progress by getting out of the group, albeit the fleeting fan might remember most their 7-0 defeat they suffered to Germany.
Due to Bosnia-Herzegovina surprising Croatia in the other final group game, the Irish players left the pitch following their pummelling by the Germans with the strange news they had reach the knockout stages.
A degree of respectability was regained in the last-16 stage. While they bowed out to England, it was by a single goal.
The current U17 squad is dominated by players still underage from last year’s crop. Amongst them are Cork duo Adam Idah and Tyriek Wright, with former College Corinthians striker Idah in the news this week not just for his goals in Poland.
If reports around Europe are to be believed, the Leesider is included on a list of potential targets compiled by Manchester United’s scouts for Jose Mouriho. Idah have shone since joining moving to Norwich City last year and the Championship club will do well to keep him.
There will also be players to rise from the U19 ranks, despite their loss against Portugal ending their dreams of reaching the Euros in Finland this July.
K O’Hara; C Whelan, R Sweeney, S Donnellan, D Kane (Ronan Hale 83); J Cullen, D Rice; J Mulraney (O Shodipo 56), R Manning, R Curtis (J Quigley 89); R Grego-Cox.
K Ibrahimov; A Krivotsyuk, E Sarkarov, B Mustafazade, S Tashgin; H Hajiyev; OC Koekue (E Shahverdiyev 58), G Aliyev, B Nasirov (I Muradov 65), M Madatov; R Sheydaev (O Buludov 86)
Filip Glova (SVK).
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