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Dublin: 4 °C Monday 22 October, 2018

'They’re all top lads. It feels more like coming into a club now'

Ireland U21 defender Ryan Sweeney was encouraged by a committed display against Norway on Thursday.

Ireland's Ryan Sweeney with Henrik Bjordal of Norway.
Ireland's Ryan Sweeney with Henrik Bjordal of Norway.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

RYAN SWEENEY REFLECTED on a decent night’s work as the Ireland U21 side drew 0-0 with Norway at Tallaght Stadium on Thursday.

Sweeney gave an assured performance at centre-back to help his side earn a clean sheet.

The result coupled with the 1-0 win over Kosovo and the 3-1 defeat of Azerbaijan means Ireland sit top of Group 5 and have begun their 2019 Uefa European Under-21 Championship qualification campaign promisingly.

“Overall, it’s probably a good point,” Sweeney says. “But I think when you get in the dressing room, you’re disappointed when you draw a match. I think it was a dogged performance but you know, we only really created one clear-cut chance. That’s something we’ve got to work on at the top end of the pitch. We’ll take it and move on to one.”

Noel King’s side have conceded just once overall in qualifying, with an ever-present backline of Man United youngster Kieran O’Hara in goals along with Sweeney, Shaun Donnellan (Walsall, on loan from West Brom), Corey Whelan (Liverpool) and Danny Kane (Huddersfield).

Sweeney believes that the consistency of selection has been beneficial to the side.

We’ve done well, all we can do is try to keep clean sheets and that’s two of the three games we’ve done that up until now. It’s a good positive thing to take into the next game and hopefully, we’ll keep doing it.

“We usually come in a day or two early so we can get a good bit of training in. They’re all top lads. It feels more like coming into a club now. We all know each other really well. We’re all trying to gel together and it can only bode well for the next few matches.”

London-born Sweeney has been at Stoke since joining the club from AFC Wimbledon in 2016, while he has spent this season on loan at Bristol Rovers, having originally joined them for a stint last year.

The 20-year-old has impressed at the League One side, making 16 appearances last season after joining them in the January transfer window, in addition to 11 appearances so far in the 2017-18 campaign.

International duty, however, means he will miss his side’s clash with Northampton today.

I enjoy coming away and playing international football. It’s really good. It’s a lot of different, it’s a bit slower, more technical, whereas in League One, I’m normally getting elbowed in the face every Saturday. So I’m enjoying that (technical) side of the game, it’s a different test for me and it can only improve my game as well.

“I think (Stoke) come down to most of my (League One) games anyway just to keep tabs on me. But if I keep putting in good performances, I can get around the first team at Stoke and see what happens.”

Ireland U21 sides have had some disappointing results over the years, though this group stands out not just for their encouraging start to the campaign, but for the number of players who are getting regular first-team football at club level.

Six players — Sweeney, Shaun Donnellan, Josh Cullen, Declan Rice, Ronan Curtis and Ryan Manning — have all seen first-team action for their clubs this season.

I think you can see we’re a fit side, we’re physical lads, the first-team football can only help, it’s a lot different to 23s, you get exposed a lot more, you play in front of crowds who pay their own money to go and watch you and jobs are on the line as well.

“It’s good experience across the 11 and on the bench, it bodes well.”

Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane were both in attendance at Tallaght Stadium on Thursday night and with the pair’s contract extensions with the senior side announced on the same day, they are likely to at the very least see out the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.

With a couple of high-profile members of the senior squad expected to retire once the current campaign comes to an end, players such as Sweeney will be hoping to make the step up in the near future.

They’ve done very well in qualifying over the recent years, we were very unlucky in the Euros… But you can’t really look too far ahead and concentrate on your own performance. Kieran (O’Hara) trained with them the other day and a few lads have stepped up from the U21s before. He is obviously looking to bring a few players in so you concentrate on your own performances and see what happens.”

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Paul Fennessy

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