Friday 14 December 2018

Ireland U-17s are top seeds ahead of Germany and Spain in Euro finals - Here are three exciting stars to watch

Nathan Collins, Jordan McEneff and Adam Idah
Nathan Collins, Jordan McEneff and Adam Idah
Cork-born Ireland U-17 Adam Idah was top scorer across the entire UEFA qualifying campaign with eight goals. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

John Fallon

On the 20th anniversary of Ireland's young footballers conquering Europe, there's a sense of excitement about the latest batch of qualifiers for the U-17 finals.

Six straight victories over two qualification mini-groups constitutes an impressive feat, especially since only Norway and Serbia reached their tally of 18 goals in the process.

Due to the tournament expanding to 16 teams since 2015, Colin O'Brien's side had already guaranteed their place at the showpiece by winning their opening pair of elite stage qualifiers against Macedonia and Georgia.

Tuesday's 1-0 win over Poland confirmed their passage as group winners and prevented the mini-group hosts joining them as one of the best runners-up.

Ireland are one of the top seeds in the draw on April 5, but could come up against a number of superpowers in the next four-nation pool at the finals, which begin on May 4.

Germany's surprise defeat to Scotland dropped them into the second pot of nations, along with the likes of holders Spain, Italy, Portugal and Belgium. Two from each category will make up the group.

Derry-born Ireland U-17 winger Jordan McEneff recovered from a back and foot injuries to make the squad for Poland.
Derry-born Ireland U-17 winger Jordan McEneff recovered from a back and foot injuries to make the squad for Poland.

The imperious run of this Ireland side will be tested but there are reasons to be hopeful that they can fare better than the sides which reached the tournament in 2015 and 2017.

Recent history doesn't bode well. Over those pair of finals, Ireland won only a single game, losing five and drawing the first - and failing to score in six of their seven matches.

Ireland did progress to the knockout stages in Croatia last May but only after being thumped 7-0 by the Germans. The three points from the 2-1 win over Bosnia & Herzegovina were sufficient in the end to see them through to a last-16 clash against England, which they lost 1-0.

Six members of the squad that Colin O'Brien had at those finals were part of his panel involved in the elite qualifiers over the past week.

From goalkeeper Kian Clarke, an understudy to Brian Maher at the finals, to captain Nathan Collins at the back and Adam Idah up front, the spine of the team will have already experienced the demands of tournament football.

Add in from the current age-group an assured right-back in Max Murphy, along with Cork native Adam O'Reilly, who appeared on the Preston North End substitutes' bench recently, and the calibre has improved.

An unusual trend to the current squad, too, is the dominance of home-produced players.

Sixteen of the squad to have featured over the qualification series were developed within the domestic system, all starting with schoolboy clubs before moving cross-channel or joining League of Ireland ranks.

Big centre-back Nathan Collins is a dominant figure in defence and offers a threat from set-pieces in the opposition box. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Big centre-back Nathan Collins is a dominant figure in defence and offers a threat from set-pieces in the opposition box. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

It marks a major contrast from the U-21 team that beat Azerbaijan on Tuesday. Just three of Noel King's starting side are products of the Irish pyramid, something the FAI are trying to address by establishing the national underage leagues at U-15 and, soon, U-13 level.

Also, O'Brien has spent his entire career in Ireland. The former Cork City winger began his coaching career on the staff of the U-15 squad before taking up that primary position. From there, when Tom Mohan stepped up to the U-19 squad in 2016, O'Brien was promoted by high performance director Ruud Dokter.

Last year's batch had Keith Andrews on the coaching staff to act as a sounding board but the former Ireland international has departed the circuit of ex-players adding experience to the underage ranks.

The squad may have a couple of friendlies arranged before they make the short hop to England in six weeks' time for the latest attempt by a cohort of tyros at capturing the public imagination.

With no Irish presence once again at the World Cup and the U-19s having their qualification tilt ended by Portugal on Tuesday, there is sufficient talent amongst the younger intake to create some new memories this summer.

Three to watch

ADAM IDAH: Top scorer across the entire UEFA qualifying campaign with eight goals, the Cork-born striker has been attracting plenty of attention in recent days. His scoring exploits for Norwich City’s underage teams not only brought him prominence but reportedly interest from Manchester United. Idah has featured on a list of players United’s scouts are keeping track of.

JORDAN McENEFF: In contrast to his older brother Aaron, who played for Tottenham, the younger McEneff chose Arsenal last year. The winger became an internet sensation for his trickery in November 2016 but that would be his last involvement with Northern Ireland before the Derry youngster switched to the Republic of Ireland. He recovered from a back and foot injuries to make the squad for Poland.

NATHAN COLLINS: The latest member of the Collins family football dynasty will captain the squad at the finals in England, having featured in last year’s finals. With his father David and uncle Eamonn both captaining Ireland at the U-18 World Cup in their day, recent Stoke City capture Nathan is intent in making his own bit of history. The big centre-back is a dominant figure in defence and offers a threat from set-pieces in the opposition box.

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