'Some of their players are going to be playing in the top leagues over the next few years'

Niall Morahan and Kameron Ledwidge were impressed by France as Ireland suffered a narrow 1-0 loss.

Charles Abi (L) of France Under-19 featured against Ireland on Thursday.
Charles Abi (L) of France Under-19 featured against Ireland on Thursday.
Image: Imago/PA Images

IT WAS A case of so near yet so far for Tom Mohan’s Ireland U19 team on Thursday.

Having drawn their opening game 1-1 with Norway, a victory or even a draw against France would have put them in a strong position to qualify for the semi-finals of the European Championships.

They were up against formidable opposition, with the French having earned a comfortable 3-0 win over Czech Republic in their first game.

The gulf in technical ability between the teams was apparent for much of the 90 minutes.

France dominated possession and controlled the play, with Irish goalkeeper Brian Maher required to make a couple of good saves to keep the game scoreless.

Ireland were an occasional threat on the counter-attack, however, and French goalkeeper Stefan Bajic did very well to deny Jonathan Afolabi, after the striker was played through on goal by Barry Coffey only to see his powerful shot tipped away for a corner.

Substitute Wilson Isidor eventually broke Irish hearts on 82 minutes, heading home to put the French in the driving seat.

Ireland then rallied late on, but could not force an equaliser.

It was Tom Mohan’s side’s first loss in the entire campaign, having maintained a 100% record in the qualification stages from six games.

15 players who played in qualifying for Ireland, however, are unavailable to feature in this tournament for one reason or another — in many cases, their clubs wanted them for pre-season preparations, and because the U19 Euros does not take place within a Fifa window, there was no compulsion for the players to be released.

All of which puts Ireland’s dogged performances so far in a more positive light, considering how it is effectively a new team that Mohan is working with.

But while the Boys in Green went close on a few occasions yesterday, the French overall had that superior bit of quality, which made them worthy winners.

“It was very hot and we were unlucky to get the result we got,” Ireland’s Kameron Ledwidge tells The42. “We worked hard as a team and defended well. It’s just about dusting ourselves down and going again Sunday.”

“All the lads on the pitch put in a serious shift,” adds Irish midfielder Niall Morahan. “We knew it was going to be a massive task before the game. France are a seriously strong outfit. But we went out with a gameplan, no different from any other game we play. We try to play the same game, press the opposition and try to play a bit of football. It was always going to be a tough task, but I think everyone did themselves proud.”

With so many players missing, Morahan believes other Irish youngsters have stepped up well in their absence.

When there’s a few big players missing, there’s always going to be a few questions asked. The lads that have come in have done really well. As good as anyone else could have done really. We had a few chances yesterday to go ahead even [against France]. But that’s just how it goes.”

One less than ideal factor has been the heat. The Irish side’s game is based on relentless pressing, though they have had to modify this approach somewhat on account of the conditions in Armenia.

“The heat is going to play a big role in all the games,” Morahan explains. “I think it’s been up around the high 20s and 30s come game time. Obviously, we’ve been out early in training, getting acclimatised to it.

“It’s a big factor and tough playing in, but everyone on the team is flying fit, so it’s just getting a second wind, everyone’s driving each other on and it really pushing [each other] to keep going.”

In addition, one noticeable difference between the sides, and perhaps a significant factor that gave France the edge on Thursday, was first-team experience.

Of Ireland’s starting XI yesterday, only Andy Lyons, Brandon Kavanagh and Ali Reghba have tasted senior action, all at League of Ireland level.

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By contrast, four of the French players have all made their senior debuts for Ligue 1 clubs, while Julien Ponceau has done the same for Ligu 2 outfit Lorient and Bridge Ndilu was a regular in the French third division with Stade Laval before recently joining Nantes, after a move to Juventus fell through.

Meanwhile, Wilson Isidor, the substitute who scored the winner, has played with Monaco’s first team and has been described as the ‘next Aubameyang,’ with Inter and Juventus linked with a move for the starlet.

“Technically, they were very good,” says Ledwidge. “They moved the ball very quickly and made us work hard.

“Some of their players are going to be playing in the top leagues over the next few years.

“It’s a good test for us. I think we dealt with it well. I think we could have got something out of the game.

They had very good very good players, though it’s nothing we haven’t faced before. You could tell they had players with some of the big teams in Europe, training and playing with them. It was a big test for us.”

With France already qualified as group winners, Ireland must now hope the table toppers can do them a favour by avoiding defeat to Norway on Sunday. Should that happen, a win would be enough to guarantee Ireland qualification to the semis.

“Everyone’s really optimistic,” says Morahan. “There’s obviously still a chance for us to go through results dependant. We just have to focus on the next game and give it everything, perform as we did the last two games and hopefully results will go our way.”

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Paul Fennessy

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