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Dublin: 8 °C Thursday 12 December, 2019

The Southampton teenager aiming to help guide Ireland to the Euro U19 semi-finals

Kameron Ledwidge is expected to feature in his side’s crucial clash with Czech Republic later today.

Kameron Ledwidge (file pic).
Kameron Ledwidge (file pic).
Image: Simon Stacpoole/INPHO

FOR A NUMBER of Irish players, it would be no exaggeration to suggest that the game today will be the biggest of their young careers so far.

A win over Czech Republic will see them reach the semi-finals of the U19 European Championships, provided Norway don’t beat France in the other match.

It would be a major achievement when you consider that the Boys in Green have qualified for this tournament twice since it was regraded to U19 level — finishing fourth in 2002 under Brian Kerr and reaching the semi-finals when coached by Paul Doolin in 2011. And of course, a Robbie Keane-inspired team famously won the equivalent competition in 1998, when it was known as the Uefa European U18 Championship.

For some individuals, most of whom have yet to play a senior game at club level, there is more at stake that just silverware. 

In the case of Jonathan Afolabi, whose goals helped Ireland qualify for this stage, it could have a significant impact on his future. The young striker has impressively led the line for the Boys in Green in both games so far. He showed his sense of confidence with an audacious attempt from inside his own half against France, with the effort only narrowly off target. And should he maintain this encouraging level of performance, it could have a major impact on his future, with the player currently unattached having been released by Southampton towards the end of last season.

Another current Southampton player, Kameron Ledwidge, is also likely to feature, having started both Ireland’s group games so far. The accomplished defender is currently playing in his third successive European Championships, having lined out for Colin O’Brien’s U17s in Croatia and England over the last two years

The Dubliner is part of a significant Irish contingent at Southampton that also includes Shane Long, Michael Obafemi, Will Smallbone and Sean Brennan, with the latter signing for the club at the same time as him.

Last summer, both Brennan and Ledwidge penned three-year professional contracts with the Saints, as they were respectively rewarded for successful debut seasons at U18 level.

“There are a good few Irish people over [at Southampton],” Ledwidge tells The42. “I can’t count how many are over there off the top of my head, but it really helped me settle in.”

Of course, the departure of Dubliner Afolabi reduced the Irish contingent at St Mary’s, but Ledwidge is backing his team-mate to shine today despite the recent setback in his club career.

“He’s a top player, a top professional. I’ve played with him for a few years now. He works hard. He’s a very good striker and was unlucky not to score [on Thursday]. He’ll probably get his goal [today]. Hopefully he plays the way he did against France and the team do too.”

Another player that was especially impressive against the French was St Pat’s youngster Brian Maher, who made a number of important saves before Ireland’s opponents eventually broke the deadlock in the 82nd minute. And Ledwidge knows the goalkeeper well too, with the pair having come through the system together at St Kevin’s Boys.

But while Maher stayed in Dublin and joined the League of Ireland outfit, Ledwidge took the alternative route, moving to Britain aged 16, having been “back and forth” from there the previous year.

I went on a few trials to clubs in England. [Southampton] asked me to go to the Milk Cup tournament in Northern Ireland. I went to that and after, they wanted to sign me. I don’t think I looked back from there. Southampton are a very good club for producing young players, so I could really have a chance there.

“I didn’t get to do the Leaving Cert, but we did some education over in Southampton, and I felt like I got what I wanted out of it. I felt like I did well in the education side of things.”

And while many Irish players find it difficult moving across the water at such a young age, the Finglas native says he encountered no such problems. 

“I found the club very welcoming, so it made it easier for me and I settled in very quickly. Once the club and the players make you feel very welcome, you should be okay.”

It helps, of course, that the 18-year-old full-back, who views Andy Robertson as a role model and spends part of his downtime watching clips of the Liverpool defender, has been progressing well on the pitch.

I played with the 18s mainly. I captained them a couple of times. Towards the end of the season, I was kind of playing 23s as well, so I was involved with them a lot. But it’s a big season for me this season, playing for the 23s. Hopefully I get as many games as I can.

“If I’m playing consistently and playing well for the 23s, I’d like to be able to get a chance in the first team.”

While there is a long road ahead yet for Ledwidge in his career, today might just be one of the defining moments of its formative stages.

Sunday, 21 July: Republic of Ireland v Czech Republic, Yerevan Football Academy Stadium, KO 18:00 (Irish Time) – Live on RTÉ2

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Paul Fennessy

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