Hodge proves hero as Ireland strike late to rescue vital point
Ireland U-19 1-1 Norway U-19
Sitting in the stand watching Ireland's U-19s eke a draw from their Euro U-19 finals opener last night, Stephen Kenny could be seeing paying special attention to Joe Hodge.
The youngest player in the Ireland squad displayed coolness beyond his 16 years by burying an equaliser nine minutes from full-time against Norway.
Kenny last week contended that the FAI lost out on Jack Grealish and Declan Rice for not fast-tracking them into the senior ranks early enough.
Manchester-born Hodge is likely to be the next dual-eligible player England will intensify their pursuit of and Kenny, due to replace Mick McCarthy next year, may decide to apply his philosophy early into his reign.
Hodge has represented both England and Ireland this season but says he's content to remain green.
"I'm enjoying playing for Ireland," he said last night after capping his U-19 debut with a vital goal.
"It's quality. My grandmother, Bernadette Hanlen, was born in Dublin. She lived just two minutes from O'Connell Street before moving to Manchester. Hopefully she was watching the game back home."
His relatives would have seen the diminutive playmaker swamped by his relieved team-mates when running to the corner flag in celebration.
Ireland were struggling to recover from losing an early goal and finding chances difficult to fashion.
That was hardly a surprise given players in their squad had scored only six of the 18 goals which blazed them into the finals with six straight victories in qualification.
It was only the glut of absences which opened the door for Hodge to be promoted from the U-17s. Manager Tom Mohan still had sufficient options to select an older player, yet chose to hand the rookie his break on the big stage.
Slotting in beside captain Lee O'Connor in midfield, the pair representing the Manchester clubs became more of a dominant force in the second half. Then, with hope slipping away, an errant ball landed at the feet of Hodge 20 yards out and he let fly.
"I think the shot took a bit of a deflection," said the modest baby-faced assassin. "With the way the ball came out to me, there was only one thing that I could do. It was a decent enough strike and gets us an important point. We didn't want to be starting the group off with a defeat."
That was certainly accurate, given next up on Thursday are France. They sauntered to a 3-0 victory over Czech Republic, whom Ireland will complete their group against on Sunday. The top two secure spots in the semi-finals.
Mohan will have Festy Ebosele and Ciarán Brennan back for that outing. The duo were out of last night's squad after falling victim to a sickness bug floating through the team's hotel.
"I think we were worthy of the point against Norway on the basis of our second-half performance," said Mohan afterwards, himself suffering slightly from illness. "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."
Ireland had been caught out badly for the opener on eight minutes.
Liverpool winger Edvard Tagseth was given too much time at the back post to pick out Erik Botheim with a cross to stab home from close range.
After Ali Reghba and Jonathan Afolabi went close, the former darted down the right wing before whipping in a delivery. Colin Rosler's clearance was wayward, affording his City clubmate Hodge the time and space to become Ireland's latest hero and great hope for the future.
IRELAND - 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.
NORWAY - 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).
Ref - N Dabanovic (MNE)