Ireland seeking to create more history at U-17 Euro finals
Against the idyllic backdrop of the Adriatic Sea, Ireland yesterday entered their final preparations for the U-17 Euro finals, the tenth time the country has reached the showpiece.
Tomorrow their impeccable record of six straight wins in qualifying is put to test in the group opener in Kostrena against Serbia, a nation renowned for producing talented teens yet one which stuttered their way to Croatia.
Victory in the opener would give Colin O’Brien’s side a solid platform to progress into the quarter-finals as a top-two finisher in the pool before they meet another Balkan challenge on Sunday in the form of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ireland will hope Germany have already sealed their passage by the time they face them next Wednesday.
This tournament – the first competitive international event a budding footballer will encounter in their career – has strong links to Irish football, especially in its previous guise of the U-16 Euros.
Brian Kerr famously led his troops, backboned by John O’Shea and Andy Reid, to an unlikely triumph in 1998, the tenth anniversary of Ireland’s first qualification.
That was a squad Roy Keane featured in but he returned from Spain as the only outfield player not to get a minute on the pitch.
Conversely, his namesake Robbie was drafted into the 1996 panel as a late replacement, making an instant impact by scoring the winner in the first game against host nation Austria.
Ireland’s record goalscorer, now approaching his 37th birthday, last week cited that case as an inspiration for all late developers fearing they’ve missed the boat.
Kerr succeeded in qualifying a second batch of youngsters for the finals in 2000, from which Wayne Henderson, Stephen Kelly, Keith Fahey developed into full caps, but the switch to U-17 and subsequent reduction in finalists from 16 to eight contributed to Ireland reaching just one tournament until the original format was restored in 2015.
That class of 2008 which travelled to Turkey had a fledgling Robbie Brady playing a year above his age-group, alongside Greg Cunningham and Conor Hourihane who would also eventually earn senior recognition.
Of the intake that broke the seven-year drought in 2015, much is still expected of Connor Ronan despite the Wolves midfielder having his season cut short in February with a stress fracture.
Unlike his fellow English-born playmaker from that panel, Arsenal’s Marcus Agyei-Tabi, the FAI are confident Ronan won’t defect to his homeland once he’s back in the limelight of the English Championship next season.