They did it the hard way, but the Republic of Ireland Under-17s showed great character to qualify for the knock-out stages of the European Championships in Hungary.
A demoralising defeat to open their campaign, as Colin O’Brien’s young side were hammered 5-1 by Poland, yet the youth bounced back in style to win their two remaining group games to progress to the last eight of the competition.
A comprehensive 3-0 win over Wales put this emerging Ireland side back on track, sending them into the group decider against the hosts, knowing that a win would put them through.
Mason Melia and Luke Kehir both bagged a brace in that clash with the Hungarians as Ireland romped to a 4-2 victory to progress to the quarter-finals and set up a clash with the highly fancied Spanish for a place in the semi-finals.
That match kicks off tonight at 7pm (Live on RTÉ News channel and RTÉ Player), and coach O’Brien’s mantra of “cup football” certainly steps up a notch against the aristocrats of European football.
O’Brien got to watch the Spanish in action ahead of the game and he was full of praise for a side that he believes are experts in both passing and receiving the ball as well as maintaining possession.
Yet this ultra-confident Ireland unit still expect to be presented with chances during the game and as long as they remain patient and stick to the gameplan, the coach believes that opportunities will arrive.
“The majority of their squad is made up of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid players,” said O’Brien ahead of the game.
“You know from their first team that that is their identity, they just like to dominate the ball. And from a young age, they have a Masters degree in passing and receiving, and they are all so comfortable on the ball.
“One of their attacking players, Lamine Yamal, has already got minutes with the Barcelona first team this season,” added O’Brien, referencing the talented youngster, who became the club’s youngest ever player in La Liga in a recent game against Real Betis.
“He’s a very dangerous player and a very creative player, and they are stacked with quality.
“We are going to have to show a lot of patience and intelligence. We do have a threat and we have to believe we will get something out of the game. It’s a quarter-final and these opportunities do not come around every year for us.”
But O’Brien emphasised that his side would go into the game with no fear, respecting the fact that Spain are a Tier 1 side, while maintaining faith in the gameplan and their collective ability.
“One of the biggest differences with Spain is the way they dominate the ball, but, we won’t be fearing them, we just need to respect the game and make sure we carry a threat when the moments are right.
“Spain are a Tier 1 nation at this age group, but we have played Italy and Holland so they have experience playing the Tier 1 nations and they did that at U16s as well.”
O’Brien has worked with Ireland underage teams for many years now and has been involved in several international tournaments along the way, so while it may have been disappointing to lose the opening game in the manner that they did, it was no surprise given the reality of underage football.
The coach explained that it is actually a common occurrence for young players not to show up in games, while the first game of a tournament is also often a case of the heading into the unknown.
“There was no overreaction,” said O’Brien, reflecting on the 5-1 defeat to Poland. “They are good characters, they just didn’t perform.
“The consistency of inconsistency will come with young players. But as a head coach, that is when they need you. We weren’t going to let that define us and they really produced when the stakes were at their highest.
“First games are so unpredictable, and sometimes you need to suffer to grow, and that second game couldn’t come quick enough.
“The team showed their resilience, but also showed their quality.”
There was a lot of talk about Mason Melia heading into the tournament, having arrived in Hungary with something in common with the aforementioned Barca star Yamal.
The Ireland striker had just become the youngest player to play a League of Ireland match for St Patrick’s Athletic, and Melia has certainly lived up to his burgeoning reputation by scoring two, while also contributing with two assists.
Melia is one of a trio of Saints players in the 20-player squad, and this Under-17 squad is essentially a result of all the hard work that has happened over the past number of years at many League of Ireland clubs, and through FAI-supported underage national leagues.
Clubs are pumping huge resources into the development of players through academies and mergers and associations with established schoolboy clubs, and it is now rewarding the hard work on the international stage.
Looking back to the famous Ireland victory at the Under-18 European Championships in 1998, all but one of the 18-player squad were associated with clubs outside of Ireland, with Keith Doyle the sole home-based player, representing St Pat’s.
The stars of that particular side who would go on to represent the senior side included Richard Dunne, Stephen McPhail and Robbie Keane, who were on the books of Everton, Leeds and Wolves respectively.
In the current Ireland Under-17 squad, 18 of the 20 are playing their football in Ireland with only defensive duo Stanley Ashbee (Hull City) and Jake Grante (Crystal Palace) plying their trade at English clubs. Four of the five Shamrock Rovers contingent are on full-time scholarships, playing for the Hoops, while getting their education through the club’s association with Ashfield College.
Melia and others, including, Kehir, Ike Orazi, and Naj Razi are becoming household names following their performances thus far in the tournament, and all are very accessible to younger players who can watch them week in week out playing in the EA SPORTS LOI Academy.
The pathway to the senior team has always existed through the Ireland underage sides, and now it appears that it can be achieved while learning the game here in Ireland.
“The big picture is to one day play for the senior international team,” said O’Brien. “We have seen that from players who have played at these tournaments, The facts are there, the evidence is there so now it’s these players moment at the moment.”
And so into the knock-out phase they go as they look to shock the Spanish and attempt to follow in the footsteps of Keane, Dunne and McPhail by making it all the way to the title, while also knowing that a semi-final berth would secure safe passage to the World Cup.
Ireland have 90 minutes to negotiate their way past the Spanish, and if the sides are level at the end, it goes straight to penalties with no extra-time included in the format.
O’Brien spoke with real confidence ahead of the game, and as mentioned, the coach believes his team can go into the game with no fear, and while he has made a range of plans to deal with whatever situations occur, including a potential penalty shoot-out, he is hoping that the job will be done without the need for spot-kicks.
“Our approach has been game by game, it is cup football,” said O’Brien. “We have to stay in the present within the game. There will be tough moments, but there will be moments (to attack).
“You have to have your Plan A, B and C as you don’t know what will happen in the game. We have a confident bunch of lads, and with their ability I am hoping to get the job done before that (penalty shoot-out).”
Source : RTE