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‘I’ve been asked many times how I kept calm, but I don't think anything could prepare you for that’

Ireland U17 manager Colin O’Brien looks ahead to this summer’s European Championships and reflects on last year’s penalty controversy against Holland.

O'Brien enjoyed a successful playing career with Cork City before moving into management.
O'Brien enjoyed a successful playing career with Cork City before moving into management.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I’M SURPRISED YOU’RE keeping your cool,” Tony O’Donoghue inquired in a tone of astonishment which was shared by everybody back home in Ireland watching on from their television screens. “You put your heart and soul into this, the same as your players.”

Colin O’Brien was being interviewed pitch side in Chesterfield having just watched his Ireland U17s side exit the European Championships at the quarter-final stage in the most bizarre, cruel and frankly unbelievable manner.

Deemed to have encroached off his line, goalkeeper Jimmy Corcoran was shown a second yellow card by Czech referee Zbynek Proske and was sent off in the middle of a penalty shootout.

This meant his team-mate, Ireland centre-back Oisin McEntee, had to go in goals for the re-taken penalty, which was converted by Netherlands striker Daishawn Redan to book his side’s place in the semi-finals and send the Boys in Green home.

Nobody had ever seen a goalkeeper sent off in the middle of a shootout, with the incident sparking a whole host of controversy and comment as to why and how the referee had decided to send off the 16-year-old goalkeeper in a European Championships penalty shootout.

Most onlookers were dismayed, upset, full of rage and anger. Ireland manager Martin O’Neill even entered the field to have a word with the Uefa officials to demand an answer.

But the calmest man to be found was the one who had every justifiable reason to be most upset. Ireland U17 boss O’Brien kept his nerve when interviewed afterwards, did not take the opportunity to criticise anybody, and simply heaped praise on the shoulders of his young side who had come so far and performed so well.

Look, these boys have done the country proud tonight,” the Cork native said. “They’ve great character, they’ve been like that all year. They’re a super bunch of lads.

“We limited this talented Dutch team to two goal-scoring opportunities. We went to penalties and it’s very unfortunate what happened here tonight. Look, [the players] will be devastated now.

Colin O'Brien after the game Ireland U17 manager Colin O'Brien and his team after last May's defeat to the Netherlands at the European Championships. Source: Simon Stacpoole/INPHO

“But they’ve been fantastic all year, they’ve big careers ahead of them. They’ve had a great season with us, gone through two qualifying rounds unbeaten, topped their group. They’ve ran a really talented Dutch team right to their limits tonight.

“It’s a tough way to go out,” he sighed. “But, sure look, we’ll take a lot out of it. They’ve all big careers ahead of them in the game. They’ve been super, what a tournament, what an experience for them. They’ve done the country proud tonight.”

O’Brien’s demeanour — just when you would expect a manager to be seething, ranting, raving, decrying an injustice against his side, blaming referees and officials — struck a cord with a lot of people.

Despite his side exiting the competition in the most cruel fashion, many of his teenaged players in tears on the field, O’Brien and his troops conducted themselves in an incredibly measured manner.

“Classy response,” said one commenter on Twitter. “That manager is a class act,” added another. “What a leader. Outstanding stuff, that’s how you conduct yourself after that shambles.”

It’s nine months on from last May’s penalty controversy, and the 43-year-old is now gearing up to lead a new Ireland U17 side into this year’s European Championships — the third championships in a row he has led his side to.

This year is unique, however, with the competition being held in Ireland — meaning his troops will get the opportunity to play in front of a home crowd at a European finals. It’s something which very few footballers at any level get the chance to do, and O’Brien is relishing it.

“It’s really exciting,” he says speaking to The42 as the countdown to May continues. “You’re going to have the best U17 players from around Europe all on our doorstep.

“It’s very special and especially for this age group. They’ve known about this for the last two years. They’ve known ever since they played U15s that when they get to U17s Ireland would be chosen to automatically qualify as hosts.

They know that they still have to prepare properly, not trying to get caught up too much in the occasion of it. They’ll be nervous, but they’ll be excited too. Irish crowds always get behind the team and I’d be encouraging everyone to get out and support us in May.”

O’Brien led Ireland to the quarter-finals in 2017 and to the same stage a year ago, when his side suffered that heartbreaking exit at the hands of the Netherlands on spot-kicks.

The Irish manager says he has been asked numerous times about the level-headed reaction of his backroom team and players following what many deemed an injustice, but maintains that it all comes back to the principles and values which his staff try to promote.

Ireland stand for the national anthem Ireland will host the U17 European Championships in May. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

At underage level, it’s not all about winning gold medals, he says. It’s more about instilling the right mentality into players who are still in their teens, showing them the right ways to behave and train and work hard. All to try and prepare them for the next stage of their careers — as senior, adult professional footballers. 

“A lot of the players have to understand that there’s going to be a lot that doesn’t go their way in their career,” O’Brien says, explaining that dealing with disappointment is simply part-and-parcel of sport. “It mightn’t be happening right now, but [setbacks] will happen.

Whether it’s issues with a club, or issues with officials on the pitch, or issues with team-mates in their club. We’re big on values with them, we really are. I know a lot of people go on about Irish football and people have a lot of opinions, but it’s more than football that we work on with the players.

“We want boys that represent themselves well, especially as they progress in their clubs. These lads, they’re smart lads, and we want to make sure they have good values and that they’ve taken something from their work with us. They won’t get everything, but hopefully they’ll have taken something that will stand to them in the long-term.”

Ever since he became U17 manager three years ago in 2016, the ex-Cork City star has stressed just how much potential is within Irish football. Oftentimes other countries dismiss Irish teams, giving his players the motivation to cause upsets.

Troy Parrott celebrates scoring their first goal with teammates O'Brien led Ireland to the quarter-finals of the U17 Euros in 2017 and again in 2018. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

“I do, I really do believe that,” O’Brien says when asked if other countries underestimate teams from this country. “Maybe not by some coaches, but some players might have a perception in certain countries about Irish football. Some of the opposition players we come across from other countries are super, super confident young players.

There’s nothing wrong with confidence, but you’ve got to back that up. I think sometimes countries might underestimate us a little bit. We will always make sure we’re competitive.”

He and his backroom team have put last year’s shootout exit behind them, he says, and are filled with fresh motivation, excitement and trepidation about this year’s Euros, which will be played in Dublin, Longford and Waterford from 3-19 May.

Exciting young talents like Real Betis centre-back Anselmo Garcia MacNulty, Norwich duo Josh Giurgi and Andrew Omobamidele, Southampton’s Seamas Keogh and Manchester City goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu are just a number of names to keep tabs on.

It all comes back to the approach, the preparation and the mentality you promote, O’Brien says. Leading Ireland’s U17s to three consecutive European Championships, the last two of which saw the Boys in Green passage to the quarter-finals, shows there is serious potential.

But it’s not just about results, he maintains. With a team of eager young teenagers just at the beginning of what they each hope will be long and successful careers in football, creating an environment with the right values to help them take the next step will be much more beneficial and worthwhile than medals and trophies in the short-term.

Colin O'Brien This year's European Championships are being held in Dublin, Longford and Waterford. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

That bizarre Dutch shootout defeat seemed to have crystallised O’Brien’s philosophy in one instance. Just when you’d expect a team to be lashing out against an injustice, complaining and criticising the decisions of referees, his men took the setback in their stride — knowing they had lost a battle, but the war was still waging on.

“I don’t think anything could prepare you for that, to be quite honest. I’ve been asked so many times how I stayed calm, but I really don’t know what would prepare you for it.

I think it was just more about the technicality of the rule being enforced [with goalkeeper Corcoran being sent off]. There was just a sense, I felt, that our players still deserved an enormous amount of credit for what they did in that tournament.

“I think you’re going to see a lot of these boys progress in a major way in the next few years, and what I also said at the time was that — hopefully — younger boys coming through aged 12 or 13 will have seen how we reacted, and it might inspire them.

“They will have seen that Irish teams can get to tournaments and compete at a high level. Not only that, but competing while conducting themselves in a professional manner.”

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Aaron Gallagher

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