U-17 European Championship preview – Ireland's prospects in the Group of Death
For the first time since the class of 2008 that included Robbie Brady and Richie Towell graced the U-17 European Championships, Ireland will be represented in this year’s showpiece starting on Thursday.
Qualifying for the expanded 16-nation finals in Bulgaria was arduous, with Ireland progressing despite defeat to Poland in their final tie in March, and the tests get more difficult on the biggest stage.
Ireland have unquestionably been drawn in the Group of Death. On Thursday, they kick off against Holland, before meeting Italy on Sunday and then holders England next Wednesday.
The top two teams from the pool advance to the knock-out stages, with the six best finishers from the tournament (four quaretr-final winners and two more after play-offs) qualifying for the U-17 World Cup to be held in Chile this October.
Amongst the standout players in the Ireland squad are captain Conor Masterson of Liverpool, Wolves duo Connor Ronan and Conor Levingston as well as Anthony Scully of West Ham United.
However, the absence of injured talisman Steven Kinsella, who Roberto Martinez signed for Everton, represents a major set-back to the hopes of the Boys in Green.
Ireland manager Tom Mohan has brought his squad to the Black Sea aware of their underdogs tag but confident his crew can evoke memories of past glories on the international stage at youth level.
"We know the quality of the opponents in our group but we're not looking at anything other than performing to the level we know the players are capable of reaching,” said Mohan.
"We have a lot of exciting attacking players in our squad and we're looking forward to this experience."
Ireland's games against Italy and England will be broadcast live on Eurosport.
MEET THE IRELAND U-17 SQUAD:
Caoimhin Kelleher (Ringmahon Rangers):
Despite being a Manchester United fan, Caoimhin has recently agreed to join their arch rivals Liverpool in July on a four-year contract.
David Craddock (Shelbourne FC):
Drafted into the squad as back-up to Kelleher, David starred for the DDSL in their triumphant FAI Youths Cup campaign.
Luke Wade-Slater (St Kevin’s Boys):
Another success story from the St Kevin’s Boys stable, Luke is another to have enjoyed a productive season domestically by claiming an FAI Youths Cup medal for his native Dublin.
Corey O’Keeffe (Birmingham City):
Birmingham-born Corey is steeped in Irish culture, evidenced by him playing GAA in his younger days. Broke into the Irish set-up at U-16 level.
Conor Masterson (Liverpool):
The squad’s captain can play in a number of positions and capped a fine year by winning the FAI U-16 Player of the Year award which was presented by Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers.
Shane Hanney (Shamrock Rovers):
Originally part of Alan Kinsella’s all-conquering Templeogue United team, Shane was recruited by Shamrock Roves with a view to being fast-tracked into their League of Ireland set-up.
Darragh Leahy (Coventry City):
Coventry City swooped earlier this season to sign the St Kevin’s Boys defender, who has been part of the team since the opening qualifier against Gibraltar last September.
Jonathan Lunney (Preston North End):
Known as JJ, the defender has been a mainstay of the international squad since U-15 level. Joined Preston North End from his schoolboy club Malahide United last year.
Robert McCourt (West Bromwich Albion):
Stylish defender Robbie sampled trials at all the big Premier League clubs in England before settling on West Brom as his future club of choice. Equally comfortable in the middle or at left-back.
Connor Ronan (Wolves):
Having played for England earlier this season, highly-rated Connor switched to Ireland for the elite qualifiers in March, when he played every minute of the three games in Poland.
Marcus Agyei-Tabi (Arsenal):
The most recent English-born addition to the panel, Marcus earned selection despite being a year young for this age-group.
Anthony Scully (West Ham United):
The London-born son of former Ireland U-21 player Tony has played for his homeland too but has pledged his allegiance to Ireland. A real talent.
Conor Levingston (Wolves):
Wexford native Conor was snapped up by Wolves shortly after impressing for his country in the SFAI U-14 Kennedy Cup.
Zachary Elbouzedi (West Bromwich Albion):
Formerly with Malahide United, West Brom beat off competition from a number of rivals to sign the attacker. Can play wide or centrally.
Jamie Aherne (Lucan United):
A team-mate of Masterson before the skipper departed for Merseyside, Aherne has also taken to international football with aplomb. His goalscoring prowess was on show in the elite qualifier against Belarus.
Trevor Clarke (St Kevin’s Boys):
Trevor is considered a vital part of the Mohan’s unit and is now playing for Dublin outfit St Kevin’s Boys having recently come back from a spell in England with Middlesbrough.
Joshua Barrett (Reading FC):
English-born Josh made a real impact during the first phase qualifiers, scoring a crucial goal in the win over Faroe Islands.
Jamie Gray (St Kevin's Boys):
A late surge of form from Gray deservedly clinched him a seat on the plane to Bulgaria. The attacking midfielder is a target of several cross-channel clubs, with Reading especially keen.
Group D Fixtures
7 May 2015
Republic of Ireland v Netherlands, Sozopol Stadium, Sozopol (BUL) (11.00am local time)
10 May 2015
Republic of Ireland v Italy, Beroe, Stara Zagora (BUL) (2.00pm local time)
13 May 2015
England v Republic of Ireland, Beroe, Stara Zagora (BUL) (5.00pm local time).