Ireland U-17s Croatia-bound for Euro finals
Glen McAuley ensured there was St Patrick's Day cheer for Irish football yesterday when his winner secured a second qualification into the UEFA U-17 finals in three years.
The Liverpool striker struck the only goal of Ireland's second elite group tie against Slovakia in Paphos with 14 minutes left to guarantee them their passage into the Croatia-hosted showpiece in May with a game to spare.
With the other two teams in the pool, hosts Cyprus and Faroe Islands, drawing, victory for Colin O'Brien's side means they will face the Cypriots safe in the knowledge their mission has already been accomplished.
Since the format for the finals doubled the number of finalists to 16, Ireland have qualified twice and they'll discover their opposition on April 3 for the tournament which takes place from May 3-19.
"We deserve this as a group," said O'Brien. "The players especially deserve this. There's great willingness to learn and they've worked so hard with all of the staff to keep developing as a team."
Although Ireland goalkeeper Brian Maher kept the game scoreless with a couple of saves, U-16 international Adam Idah almost put them ahead only to be denied by the post before McAuley supplied the elusive goal on the counter-attack.
The Reds front man and captain Lee O'Connor of Manchester United were both involved with the U-17s last season and their class will be required when the Irish try to better the 2015 showing of bowing out in the group phase.
Arsenal prospect Nathan Tormey should be available, too, having recently returned from a five-month injury-enforced lay-off.
Ireland - Maher (St Patrick's Ath); O'Connor (Manchester United), Ledwidge (St Kevin's Boys), Doherty (Sheffield Utd), Collins (Cherry Orchard); Bolger (Shamrock Rovers), Coventry (West Ham), Roache
(Blackpool); McAuley (Liverpool), Idah (College Corinthians), Connolly (Brighton and Hove Albion).