IT WAS far from pretty but Ireland’s U-21s began their UEFA Championship qualifying campaign last night by seeing off Andorra at the Waterford RSC.
Noel King’s new-look side struggled for fluency early one but, once their nerves were settled by Dylan Connolly’s winning goal on 31 minutes, they could express themselves by controlling the tie.
Although the anticipated goalrush against the group’s minnows failed to materialise, there was scant threat supplied by the visitors.
Aaron Sanchez-Alburquerque did have the ball in the Irish net nine minutes from full-time but he was adjudged to have been offside.
In front of the watching senior management team of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, much of Ireland’s early forays in attack were channelled through lone frontman Conor Wilkinson.
The Bolton Wanderers striker teed up Jack Byrne on 10 minutes to wriggle away from his marker only to blaze the shot from 25 yards over.
Wilkinson should have done better himself five minutes later after turning into the box but shooting tamely at Victor Silverio Pinto.
Former Shelbourne flanker Connolly was next to go close for Ireland when his 18th-minute thunderbolt forced the Andorra goalkeeper to tip the effort over.
The Ipswich Town winger was far more prolific with his finishing for the winning goal. When Wilkinson’s low drive was parried by Pinto, the onrushing Kenny McEvoy squared the ball across goal for the Connolly to bundle it over the line from close range.
Chances were hard to come by for the Irish thereafter as possession failed to translate into worthwhile opportunities.
Andorra, who have scored just one goal in their last two campaigns, were content to sit back and try hit Ireland on the counter.
It wasn’t until the final minutes that Ireland finally stretched Andorra to carve out an opportunity for Callum O’Dowda to mark his debut with a goal but he was thwarted by the man-of-the-match Pinto.
Better finishing, too, from substitute Sean Maguire might should have extended the winning margin late on too. Once again, a fairytale homecoming for the ex-Waterford United attacker was denied by the visiting custodian.
Next up for the Ireland is the return fixture against Andorra in September. Italy, Serbia, Slovenia and Lithuania complete the group and it’s a certainty that Carlo Cudicini’s knowledge and experience will be relied on in his role of goalkeeping coach much more when those tougher tests arise.
IRELAND: D Rogers; J Connors, T Hoban, D Lenihan, S Kavanagh; G Rea, J Byrne; D Connolly (S Maguire 90), K McEvoy (A Browne 86), C O’Dowda; C Wilkinson (S Goodwin 72).
ANDORRA: Pinto; Gomez, Gonzalez-Adrio, Ruiz (Alvarez 53), Gresa (Ortega 77); Rodrigues, Nazzaro, Roig, Munoz (Noguera 68); Pena; Sanchez-Alburquerque.
Referee: T Krastev (BLG)