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Lost in all the controversy, it's been a magnificent week for Irish underage football

The U19s recently qualified for a major tournament for the first time since 2011.

Ireland's Neil Farrugia celebrates with his mother, Mary Farugia, after the U21 game.
Ireland's Neil Farrugia celebrates with his mother, Mary Farugia, after the U21 game.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

IT HAS BEEN overshadowed by the Football Association of Ireland-John Delaney controversy, and to an extent, the senior team’s exploits, but it really has been a magnificent few days for Ireland at underage level.

On Sunday, the U21s got their Euro 2021 campaign off to a winning start, with a comfortable 3-0 win over a Luxembourg side that has caused problems for France and Bulgaria among others in the recent past.

With Italy, Sweden, Iceland and Armenia also in the group, the Irish team will undoubtedly face stiffer tests as they bid to qualify for the first time ever at that level.

But there was plenty to be positive about at Tallaght Stadium on Sunday. Despite a frustrating opening half hour, the hosts grew increasingly dominant and were well worth their victory in the end.

Adam Idah, Jayson Molumby, Neil Farrugia and Connor Ronan were among the standout players whose performances suggested they had the potential to progress to senior level, while the team managed to play the type of attractive football for which new manager Stephen Kenny is renowned.

More impressive still were the U19s. At the weekend, they became the first team to qualify for Euro 2019, which begins on 14 July, aside from hosts Armenia.

They were also the only team in Europe to retain a 100% record in qualifying, winning six out of six while scoring 18 and conceding just three along the way. Having topped the group in the qualifying round ahead of Netherlands, Bosnia and Faroe Islands, they also progressed from the elite round at the expense of Romania, Russia and Azerbaijan.

The achievement was all the more impressive, given that key players such as Idah, Conor Coventry and Lee O’Connor were missing this week having been fast-tracked to the U21s, while highly-rated Tottenham youngster Troy Parrott was injured (and would have played for the U21s if fit).

It is a first appearance at the annual tournament for the Ireland U19s since 2011, when youngsters including Matt Doherty, Jeff Hendrick and John Egan emerged as the team reached the semi-finals before losing 5-0 to a Spain side that included Alvaro Morata, Gerard Deulofeu and Dani Carvajal among others. Moreover, it is their third appearance in total, having made the inaugural tournament in 2002 (it was reclassified from an U18 tournament before then). There will be just seven sides joining the Boys in Green in the summer — Italy, Portugal, France, Spain, Norway, Czech Republic and Armenia.

Many of the current crop of U19 starlets were also involved in last year’s equivalent U17 tournament. On that occasion, the Boys in Green got all the way to the quarter-final stage, before suffering a controversial penalty shootout loss to the Netherlands.

The lads are in great form,” boss Tom Mohan said after qualification was secured. “It’s a fantastic achievement by everyone to qualify, knowing how difficult it is to qualify for a Finals. The last couple of years have been so close, but it’s great such a relief to get through.

“It’s testament to the work being done at underage level. Some of the lads went to two U17 Finals with Colin O’Brien in the past two years too.”

There has been much doom and gloom in recent years, and plenty of it justifiable, with Ireland struggling to produce the number of top-quality players they did in the past.

Nevertheless, while the players in question still have a very long way to go in the game, recent results have afforded more scope for optimism and suggest that the new format in which the national underage leagues are being prioritised appears to be paying off to a degree. The future, it seems, is looking brighter for Irish football than it has been for some time.

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Paul Fennessy

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