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Tuesday 17 July 2018

Daniel McDonnell: Hard luck tale should not define U-17 efforts

Important lessons learned in Dutch clash even before late agony of shoot-out defeat

Ireland youngsters Tyriek Wright (left) and Adam Idah console each other after the UEFA U-17 quarter-final defeat to Netherlands. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland youngsters Tyriek Wright (left) and Adam Idah console each other after the UEFA U-17 quarter-final defeat to Netherlands. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The European U-17 Championships move on without Ireland and that is the unfortunate bottom line for Colin O'Brien and his players.

They arrived home yesterday to find their exploits had thrust them into the national spotlight. Indeed, Jimmy Corcoran's bizarre dismissal was headlining on Sky News throughout the day because of the novelty factor of a red card during a shoot-out.

The attendance for Monday night's dramatic quarter-final with Holland was fewer than 700, but the reach went much further.

Martin O'Neill's angry and perplexed reaction at the full-time whistle added a bit of star quality to the controversy. His incursion onto the pitch for a brief word with the Czech referee might well warrant a mention in the referee's report.

That said, in the narrow corridors of the ProAct Stadium, UEFA officials were overheard praising Ireland manager O'Brien and captain Nathan Collins for their measured comments in the aftermath of a gut-wrenching disappointment. The FAI's communications team were determined to ensure that no player rocked the boat by speaking out of turn; coaching diplomacy into players from an early age is clearly an element of the development plan.

There was collective devastation in the aftermath, but teenagers can respond to setbacks in varying ways. While the FAI were keen that Collins, the captain, would be the only player to face questions, other members of the squad went straight to their phones.

Apology

The dust had barely settled when impressive striker Adam Idah offering an unnecessary apology on Twitter for his miss in the shoot-out. Some of O'Brien's players were too upset to speak. Others handled the situation differently.

Last night, Corcoran posted a statement on Twitter last night thanking people for their support - and acknowledging that the referee's decision was 'correct' by the letter of the law.

The small attendance was largely filled out by scouts and agents who hung around after the game as the players digested developments. Ireland's reaction gained them respect, although one former player did express the fear that the entire analysis of the game would centre on the harsh punishment meted out to Corcoran.

He had listened to the players' discussions and was concerned they were slipping into moral victory mode - a familiar Irish condition. O'Neill's assistant Roy Keane went out of his way to make that point on the day after Thierry Henry's 2009 handball in Paris.

It can sometimes be unfair to expect too much of players at the formative stages of their careers. O'Brien's approach to media is to try and say as little as possible about individuals and focus on the group.

There is a fair bit expected of this generation, though, and they will have learned a lot from their expedition to England.

There were both positives and negatives to take from the Dutch encounter. The young Irish were meeting a side that was tipped to win the competition - and might well still do so - after blitzing through a group that included Spain and Germany.

On the flip side of that, Ireland had qualified as top seeds and had regularly cut teams open in qualifying. Against the Dutch, they struggled to get out of their own half before the interval. O'Brien did say afterwards that his players could have done better with the ball at times, but he also hinted that 'limiting' a crack a Dutch outfit was part of the game-plan.

Ireland were so concentrated on keeping their shape, that they were then guilty of giving the ball away cheaply when they managed to get hold of it.

What the second half showed is that O'Brien does have players that are capable of getting the ball down and playing attractive football. They also offer a threat in the final third that some decent sides in recent years have lacked.

There have been promising generations where wingers have been converted into forward players in order to plug a gap. In Norwich attacker Idah, Ireland have a natural front man that can lead the line and unsettle the opposition defence. He's an O'Neill type of player.

The Corkman was prolific in qualifying, but it was Troy Parrott that came to the fore in the tournament with his natural technical quality evident in all three of his goals. Parrott was willing to drop into space and take chances and the Dutch were rocked by his equaliser.

Ireland might have capitalised on that by pushing for a winner, but highly regarded creative players Seán Brennan and Jordan McEneff were unused subs. It would have been a risk, yet these are the other elements of any post-mortem.

That's not to pick holes in O'Brien's performance. He is a well-regarded coach and it was clear that his team knew their jobs. O'Brien and his staff have worked with the group for long enough to know all of their strengths and weaknesses and will doubtless be a tad bemused that one high-profile game suddenly makes everybody an expert.

The vast majority of Ireland's most famous victories at all levels were built on a similar strategy, no matter what gloss is applied by hindsight. Still, there were frustrating Irish habits on evidence that go back generations. The opponent was sharper in possession, but Ireland's success as they chased the game suggested they were perhaps guilty of giving them too much respect - a little belief can take a team a long way.

At key points, they were cagey rather than clinical. Next year, Parrott and Corcoran will still be eligible as Ireland host the competition. That will give the next crop experience of a different type of expectation.

Ireland made their way home with regrets, but they must not dwell on them. The hard luck story is an Irish affliction. Their challenge from this point onwards is to write a new one.

Irish Independent

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