'Stephen Kenny came in and said it was the first time he saw it'

An incredible finish saw Ireland U21s beat Sweden with the last kick of the game.

Ireland manager Stephen Kenny watches the game with Dundalk manager Vinnie Perth.
Ireland manager Stephen Kenny watches the game with Dundalk manager Vinnie Perth.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

JIM CRAWFORD said he had never seen anything like it, nor had Stephen Kenny.

Ireland U21s were on the verge of a 0-0 result against Sweden that would leave their qualification campaign in jeopardy.

Yet 18-year-old Ollie O’Neill, who had been on the pitch for less than 10 minutes, was in the right place at the right time to score with the last kick of the game.

The referee didn’t even give Sweden the chance to restart the game.

“It’s funny, Stephen Kenny came in and said it was the first time he saw it, where a goal was scored and it was blown up,” Crawford said afterwards. “I didn’t hear it, I was telling all the players to get back. Then I found out the game was over. It’s a great feeling, it really is, and I’m delighted for the boys. I’m not going to lie, it would have been disappointing if we got one point in the two games, the way the players worked on the training pitch, in team meetings, they give everything. They fully deserved the three points and the manner they won it in too.”

And what else did Ireland boss Kenny, who watched the game from the stands, have to say?

“He was thrilled, he was delighted for them. He fully thought we deserved the three points, that we were the better team, created the better chances. And I think Sweden coming, they started the game top of the group and unbeaten, it’s an excellent scalp. They are a good team and I don’t think we gave them too many opportunities.”

Crawford also praised Fulham youngster O’Neill, who only made his Ireland U21s debut last month, and is still technically eligible to play for Tom Mohan’s U19s side, who had a similarly encouraging result yesterday.

The Irish camp had insisted all week that they would not deviate from their principles in what was a must-win game, and that attitude was reflected in the winning goal. Whereas Irish teams of the past might have been tempted to desperately hoof the ball towards the box, this team showed great composure and skill to play it through midfield for the winner.

“It was a decent performance, I was thinking, and then Ollie does that. He deserves it. He could have been out in Bulgaria this week with Tom Mohan. But we have seen qualities in him that merit his call-up to the 21s. He had to wait for his chance, he came on, he did well and a fantastic goal, I’m delighted for him.”

Whereas a draw would have rendered qualification a tall order, the victory puts the Irish team right back in the hunt.

While Crawford’s men still sit four points behind group leaders Sweden — with the winners qualifying automatically and the runners-up earning a spot in the play-offs — they have a game in hand on their rivals, and they could narrow the gap further when the teams meet in the reverse fixture in March.

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“You are thinking, one point in this window, it’s not enough. I said we wanted six, we would have taken four, three now brings us close to Sweden again. It makes March an even bigger game. We’ve got to go over to Sweden now and win.”

Ireland have been involved in plenty of tight games in this group already, with missed penalties ultimately costing them points against both Luxembourg and Montenegro, while they could have easily secured a point last Friday against Italy, as Ross Tierney missed a golden opportunity late on to equalise just before the Azzurri made it 2-0.

Crawford, therefore, felt the degree of fortune that came their way in the form of a last-gasp winner was long overdue.

“We’ve missed penalties in two big games. Against Italy the first goal we conceded was disappointing, it was a silly mistake. It was a little bit of the luck of the Irish today, the 92nd minute. When the official put up the board, two minutes, I’m sort of saying it looks like a point, and I think [Sweden] would have been thrilled with a point.

“We had some great chances, Tyreik hits the target, Will had a couple of great chances but missed the target a couple of times and probably too many touches another time when he was in on goal. But I did think the substitutions added energy to the game. Will Ferry, Ollie, Evan Ferguson, Conor Noss, they added legs and energy.”

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Paul Fennessy

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