Cheers to tears: Heartbreak for U-17s as ref's controversial shoot-out decision robs O'Brien's young guns of semi-final chance
Martin O'Neill led the Irish protests after their European U-17 Championship campaign ended in devastating fashion with goalkeeper Jimmy Corcoran sent off during a dramatic penalty shoot-out, writes Daniel McDonnell.
The Cherry Orchard netminder was given a red card after saving a Dutch spot-kick - a stop that would have sent the quarter-final decider to sudden death following a plucky performance from Colin O'Brien's charges.
But referee Zbynek Proske said that Corcoran had encroached from his line and punished the youngster with a second yellow card. He also ordered the penalty to be retaken with Daishawn Redan converting to send the Dutch through after a 1-1 draw in regulation time.
The Ireland players were stunned and O'Neill left his seat in the stands to approach the official as he left the pitch to seek clarification. He could face punishment for that action if UEFA take a dim view but the Derryman - who was carrying a laptop - was determined to make his point.
O'Brien admitted that the referee had warned both goalkeepers before the shoot-out that leaving their line would result in a yellow card.
But he was miffed that Corcoran's Dutch counterpart had been given two warnings - with the penalty miss from Ireland's Adam Idah coming under scrutiny - while the Irish player had a clean report card until the decisive moment.
“There’s a lot of frustration about how the game finished,” said O’Brien. “To a man, they’ve been excellent all season and let’s talk about that because the way the game finished, it’s very frustrating.”
O’Neill was joined at the ProAct stadium by Roy Keane and the rest of his management staff and he went into speak to the disconsolate Irish group after.
“He just said that it was a joyful match from us and that we’re in his minds for the future,” said Ireland skipper Nathan Collins, who kept his cool while discussing the drama.
“There’s very mixed emotions. We’ve given everything on the pitch. The way it happened... anything can happen in football. We’ll keep going.”
O’Brien tried to focus on the positives and the fact that two Irish players at the centre of the drama – goalscorer Troy Parrott and Corcoran – will be eligible next year when Ireland are the hosts.
Parrott scored three goals in the competition to add to his burgeoning reputation.
But the manager paid particular tribute to Corcoran given that he came into the competition as second choice with an injury to Shamrock Rovers keeper Kian Clarke giving him the opportunity.
“Jimmy is a year younger. He showed great temperament and a bit of class all week,” said O’Brien, “He’s got a crack at this next year and it will be an invaluable experience for him.
“I think people will talk about how it ended but they will have seen a good Irish performance.
“All the boys are going to be devastated but give them a couple of days to reflect on it and they will be proud. This should be about the Republic of Ireland U-17 side and how well they’ve done, topping two qualifying groups to get here.
“They limited a very talented Netherlands team, who conceded their first goal in the tournament.”
The relieved Dutch will face hosts England in Thursday’s semi-final back in Chesterfield.