Ireland U19 international Barry Coffey. Andrew Fosker/INPHO
a long way to tipperary

‘Mam, Dad, they put a lot of work into me. It’s nice to repay them with moments like last night’

Celtic midfielder Barry Coffey’s goal helped Ireland into the semi-finals of the U19 European Championships.

THE LOOK OF pure, unbridled joy on Barry Coffey’s face said it all.

The Tipperary-born midfielder had made a clever run towards the edge of the Czech Republic box, where he managed to carve open just enough space to latch onto Joe Hodge’s pinpoint pass right to his feet. He had been on the pitch less than half an hour after being brought off the bench.

Coffey’s first touch set him up perfectly, taking the sting out of the ball and laying it on a silver platter begging to be hit. The young Celtic cadet took a brief moment to glance up at goal before guiding it into the bottom corner. Bang! 2-1.

Cue a feeling of ecstasy and an outpouring of emotion. Coffey sprinted away, ducking and weaving past the outstretched arms of his Ireland team-mates trying to haul him to the ground — his celebration almost Marco Tardelli-esque as he let out a barbaric scream into the Armenian night’s sky.

“Dreams do come true,” he tells The42 the morning after Ireland’s vital 2-1 victory which booked the Boys in Green’s place in the semi-finals of the Uefa U19 European Championships.

Tom Mohan’s side knew a draw might have been enough to see them into the final four, but it was by no means a guarantee. Ireland had drawn with Norway and lost to France already, and approached yesterday’s group decider knowing a win would seal their place in the semi-finals — a draw would be sufficient only if France overcame Norway.

The French got the job done, but hindsight is 20/20, and Mohan’s men were never going to bank on the outcome of other results when they knew beating the Czechs would keep their dream alive and set up a semi-final with defending champions Portugal on Wednesday.

It is an incredible achievement for the young side, managing to make it all the way to the semi-finals of a Uefa European Championships. Ireland were the first country to qualify for the tournament, while giants like Germany, Holland and England failed to do so.

“It’s a nice feeling waking up in bed this morning knowing we’re in the semi-finals of a European Championships,” Coffey says from the team hotel in Armenia.

“This tournament is probably one of the hardest tournaments to qualify for, with only one getting out of each group and with the standard of teams in the tournament as well. To get to a semi-final just shows the direction in which Irish football is going.”

He grew up in Nenagh, a large market town in Tipp, and is currently on the books at Celtic, where he spent a few weeks earlier this summer travelling with Neil Lennon’s senior team on a pre-season trip to Austria.

Coffey played in games against SC Herz Pinkafeld and Wiener SK and relished the opportunity to play side-by-side with senior pros like Scott Sinclair, Callum McGregor, Scott Brown and James Forrest.

Barry Coffey and Adam Idah of celebrate after the game Adam Idah and Barry Coffey at the U17 European Championships in May 2018. Andrew Fosker / INPHO Andrew Fosker / INPHO / INPHO

“It was unbelievable,” he says. “To be around the first-team players is a dream come true. You’re working with some of the best players in the world and it’s great to work with such professionals and such top, top players. The experience was one I’ll never, ever forget.

The gaffer [Neil Lennon], he’s unreal. He’s tough, he’s passionate, he’s hard-working. He’s a top-quality manager and that’s a credit to him. He’s been great to work under and hopefully I can keep getting better and keep improving my game.”

A number of Ireland’s top U19 internationals like Troy Parrott, Michael Obafemi, Adam Idah and Celtic team-mate Luca Connell were not released by their clubs for this summer’s Euros. Coffey was thrilled when he was given the green light to travel.

“There was a bit of: ‘Will you go, will you not go?’,” he explains. “Obviously Luca [Connell] didn’t come, but for me I couldn’t turn down this opportunity. I was itching to go and when they said they were going to release me for the Euros, I was packing my bags straight away.

“It’s unbelievable to be here and even more special to play and have moments like last night. It’s unreal, like. Surreal.”

Screen Shot 2019-07-22 at 13.24.05 @BarryCoffey123 @BarryCoffey123

Coffey has been in impressive form throughout this summer’s Euros, but only started one of three group games. He admits that he was disappointed to be sitting on the substitutes bench against Czech Republic last night, but that only motivated him further to make an impact when he got his chance.

“It’s not nice sitting on the bench,” he says. “But you’ve just got to be patient and be ready for your chance. That’s what Tom said to be: ‘Just be ready for your chance’. It was just a build-up of emotion, for me, sitting on the bench for the previous one-and-a-half games.

So I just built that up and then when I seen the ball hit the back of the net, it was just a nice relief. Those moments don’t come very often. Look, you’re a professional footballer — you want to play every game, so you’re always going to be disappointed when you don’t.

“It was hard to drop anyone from the team, though. Joe [Hodge] and Lee [O'Connor], Brando [Kavanagh] have all been solid, so it’s the gaffer’s call to spring me from the bench.

“But look, you don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself if you’re down, because you can be called upon at any second. You’ve just got to prepare like you are starting and try to make the best impact you can when you get on the pitch.

Barry Coffey arrives The midfielder joined Celtic at the beginning of 2017. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

“Looking back on the goal, it was a good pass from Joe and I was just happy to be in the right position. It was a better touch than I was expecting and I just slotted it away nicely into the corner. Dreams come true, really, to score like that. To score in a European Championships for your country. The goal did mean a lot to me.”

Coffey says the Irish dressing room was buzzing after their 2-1 win. But the nature of international tournaments means their celebrations cannot extend any further than the limits of their hotel, where he and his team-mates played PlayStation and watched Netlix to unwind last night.

Yeah that’s the sacrifice you make,” he laughs. “We all went back our hotels and chilled out and watched Netflix, but we woke up this morning knowing we were still in the competition and had this brilliant chance to prepare for a semi-final against Portugal.

“Every semi-final is a big challenge no-matter who you’re playing. It’s a two-horse race and we’ll back ourselves.

“We’ll prepare well and we’ll get our homework done and we’ll give Portugal the respect they deserve — but we will definitely go out there and back ourselves to put on a show for the country back home. We’ve nothing to fear, really. We’ve been knocked down every time we’ve done well, so we’ll prepare well and we’re all buzzing for it.”

The teenager says the Irish squad have relished the support from back home, but have had to go into a bubble in terms of their own preparations.

Every game has been shown live across the country on RTÉ, as will Wednesday evening’s semi-final.

When you’re in camp, everybody is just so focussed that you don’t really have time to be soaking up all the media and what’s going on back home. But we definitely can feel the support.

“We know the country is right behind us and that’s an unbelievable driving force for us, to have that support of the nation behind us.

“To have the games on RTÉ and have everyone watching back home, friends and family in Tipperary, it’s an unreal experience.”

That’s what’s driving him on, he says, that motivation to pay his family back for all the support they have shown in his career to make it to the top of the professional game.

Barry Coffey and Nicolas Raskin Wednesday's semi-final against Portugal will be broadcast on RTÉ 2. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

They likely won’t make it over to Armenia for Ireland’s meeting with Portugal, but knowing his mam, dad and siblings will be watching back home in Tipperary is enough to drive him on to make history.

“I’m always on the phone to Mam and Dad,” he says. “I don’t think they’ll make it out, but I don’t really expect it. They travel all over the world to see me already, so I’m happy enough for them to sit on the couch at home and watch it on RTÉ.

“They’ve travelled far enough for me already. They’ve given their lives for me, so I don’t need to be dragging them all the way to Armenia. I’m grateful for them. It’s always nice to have that support from your whole family and loved ones.

“Mam, Dad, my brother, my sister — they all put a lot of work into me, keeping me going, so it’s just nice to repay them with moments like last night. It’s a lovely feeling to be able to share these moments as a family.”

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