The last time Ireland competed in the European Championship finals at U-17 level they were the host nation about to become embroiled in the biggest scandal in the FAI’s history with a financial crisis which threatened their very existence.
All the drama was on the field of play as the current crop of U-17 stars sealed a place in the finals – a stunning goal from Nickson Oksoun to seal a stunning 3-2 win over hosts Cyprus – earning Colin O’Brien’s side the honour of being the first nation to qualify for the finals, which will be held in Hungary in May.
The subtext to the team’s success is a transformation of how Ireland’s underage sides are made up.
A Brexit-enforced sea change means that the majority of players involved in this qualification success are not based abroad but playing for Irish clubs, evident in the fact that Ireland’s goalscorers in their 3-2 win came from St Patrick’s Athletic, Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians.
“They’ve done their clubs proud and the clubs must take credit for their development,” said manager O’Brien. “I felt like we were the strongest squad here. It’s a great day for Irish football and it goes to show just how much talent we have in this country – that’s players and coaches.”
Having drawn with Italy and beaten Ukraine, Ireland knew they had to equal or better Italy’s result against Ukraine, with the potential to still qualify as one of the best runners-up.
Twice in that test against the Cypriots it looked tricky. With Ireland losing 1-0 they drew level thanks to St Patrick’s Athletic man Luke Kehir, before needing a goal from Shamrock Rovers player Naj Razi to bring it back level again.
The game was still tied at 2-2 heading into injury-time but Razi and Okosun combined in a Rovers-Bohs one-two for Okosun to score the winner, with Oksoun only on the field a matter of minutes.
Italy won 3-0 but Ireland finished ahead of a highly rated Italian side on the basis of goals scored.
The success in qualifying is impressive but the make-up of the squad says more about the state of Irish football than a mere place at the finals. When Ireland contested the U-17 finals in England in 2018, just two of the squad were attached to Irish clubs. A new structure, related to Brexit rules on the movement of players to the UK before they are 18, paints a different picture in 2023.
Of the current U-17 panel, only four are based in England. The rest are with academies in Ireland with Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers each providing four players, with the rest coming from St Patrick’s Athletic, Cork City, Waterford, UCD and Wexford.
Retaining the likes of Mason Melia, Kehir, Razi, Okosun, Romeo Akachukwu and Kaylem Harnett beyond the age of 18 is a big challenge but for now, the U-17s have made their mark.