Ireland's Sean McEvoy and Jeremy Doku of Belgium. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

'He plays like a man at times' - The 16-year-old winger who lit up Tallaght

Belgium’s Jeremy Doku stood out, as his team drew with Ireland U17s.

IRELAND U17S MAY have fallen at the first hurdle of the 2019 European Championships, but there were still some encouraging signs for the future over the course of the tournament.

Joe Hodge, Timi Sobowale, Matt Everitt and Andrew Omobamidele were among the standout performers, as the Boys in Green drew three consecutive games 1-1 and failed to advance to the knockout stages as a result.

But for all the impressive individuals for the hosts on show at Tallaght Stadium on Thursday night, there was no doubt that the best player on the pitch was wearing red.

Left-sided Belgium attacker Jeremy Doku was simply on another level to those around him. The 16-year-old constantly tormented the Irish defence, demonstrating remarkable pace, skill and balance in the process, with his threatening runs and intelligent movement a recurring feature of the closely-fought contest.

The hosts simply could not deal with the talented starlet and it was no surprise that he was integral to Belgium’s only goal, with Chris Kalulika converting the rebound of his shot following great build-up play.

In addition, unlike most of the Irish players on show, Doku has experience of senior football, lining out for Anderlecht on five occasions this season in the Belgian league. 

“It was [a big challenge],” Irish boss Colin O’Brien responded, when asked about trying to contain Belgium’s danger man. “We identified him as a key player. They had lots of plays throughout the pitch particularly with the wide players. That boy Doku, he’s played five times for Anderlecht’s first team already this season. He plays like a man at times.

“But these are the kind of games our players still need, coming up against these players. They’ll go away tonight and know there’s another level still for their own development. It’s brilliant — hard to see now, but better for the long term.”

O’Brien added: “Some of these countries, they’re in their academy set-up a long time. They have certain components to their game that they’re going to be slightly ahead on. You have to maximise your own strengths as well and to try to add to that.

We were close in the last 15 minutes [to scoring a winner]. They’re still young kids, they’re 16 or 17. They had a wobble. They were prepped for that all year — the whole situation of how to adapt in matches. Sometimes you saw them press high, sometimes we had to defend a bit deeper, I understood that. There’s a real tactical maturity about them now. When we started the season compared to where they are now, they’re better. For me as a head coach and the staff, it can be hard to see, but that’s the big aim, the broader picture.”

O’Brien was also critical of his side’s play in the final third of the pitch, and felt in that respect, they could take some lessons from Doku and the rest of the Belgian team.

“Just adding that stuff when we entered the final third, that’s something we need to develop with our players — decision-making and execution of actions. If you look at the Belgian play in the final third, you package some of that, there’s no reason why our players can’t learn from it as well. You’re always learning from other countries. Some of our approach was great, it’s just that last bit, creating and scoring, is something we have to keep working on.”

O’Brien now turns his attention to the next qualifying campaign and Euros tournament, which will take place in Estonia next year. Qualification begins in November, with some of the current squad still eligible to feature.

“That’s the way it works with youth football. The work is never done. We would have taken this group last July and one of our big objectives is: can you make them better? We knew the outcome this year would be in May, so that’s what you’re always doing and I think we’ve answered that and the players themselves did, so that’s great to see. They move on, the next group comes forward and we’ve already began our process with that.”

Gavan Casey, Murray Kinsella and Bernard Jackman tee up Saturday’s Champions Cup final and look at the backroom problems in Munster.:

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