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Dublin: 5 °C Friday 28 February, 2020

'They’re better players and we’ve more players playing at a higher level'

Ireland U21 manager Noel King says his side’s success is linked with their encouraging fortunes at club level.

Ireland’s Corey Whelan and Joe Quigley celebrate after the game.
Ireland’s Corey Whelan and Joe Quigley celebrate after the game.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

IF YOU CAN’T be good, be lucky, so the saying goes.

Ireland didn’t have much luck back in November, when Noel King’s side suffered a first loss in qualifying.

In Drammen, a last-minute goal by Hannover youngster Iver Fossum saw them defeated 2-1 by Norway, with the Irish team’s Euro 2019 qualification hopes suffering a setback in the process.

On Tuesday night, however, they were on the other end of a last-gasp goal, as Shaun Donnellan’s scrappy effort against Azerbaijan sent the 1,645 fans at Tallaght Stadium into ecstasy.

Noel King was clearly in good humour after seeing his side snatch a crucial victory. In the mixed zone afterwards, he took time to react in mock exasperation at the prospect of being interviewed by his old media sparring partner, RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue.

And the Irish boss has reason to be pleased. After last night’s success, the Boys in Green sit just three points off Group 5 leaders Germany with a game in hand.

Next, in September, they travel to face third-place Kosovo, the team that drew 0-0 with the Germans yesterday.

King’s men host Germany a couple of days later, before finishing up with away trips to Israel and Die Mannschaft in October.

Noel King King was delighted to see his side secure a late win over Azerbaijan last night. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Anything other than a win at Tallaght last night would have been a big blow. Azerbaijan had picked up just one point from six games before the match, while Ireland dominated much of the game, so were it not for Donnellan’s dramatic late intervention, it would have very much been a case of two points dropped as far as the home side were concerned.

“We deserved to win,” King said afterwards. “Maybe we left it a bit late. We had more chances, more possession.

“We didn’t have anything that was a glaring miss. But we were in and around the penalty area a lot. Then we went a little bit more direct than we would normally go.

We were lucky if you want to call it that, but I would call it persistence, a quality of no surrender.”

Ireland had looked slick and clinical at the same venue in a friendly with Iceland last week, but these qualities were conspicuous by their absence in the opening 45 minutes, as they toiled and failed to seriously test the visitors’ goalkeeper.

“We didn’t play well enough first half and the players would agree with that,” King said. “When you discuss with them they know it was a little bit slow, a little bit sluggish, missed passes. It’s something that we haven’t been doing. We’ve trained eight days together and parts of that 45 minutes were arguably our worst in the eight days.

“It’s not really what you want, you want to try to peak, so there was something going on, it’s hard to put your finger on how you would correct and change it. We tried a few changes. And whether it’s luck or spirit [we succeeded].”

One player who could be excused for looking a tad fatigued was Declan Rice. The West Ham youngster was in action for the senior side in Turkey last Friday, and having played the majority of that game in defence, he reverted to a midfield role alongside Hammers clubmate Josh Cullen for the Tallaght encounter. King was impressed by how the 19-year-old handled himself, after his more high-profile outing last week.

It’s very difficult for a young player like that to come in and the expectation is high. I thought he acquitted himself terrifically. He [showed] his work-rate, done well, like everybody. There were errors, like everybody, but he did very well. It’s good to have him.”

Ireland have never qualified for a major tournament at U21 level, but this side have given themselves a decent chance of bucking the trend. King’s theory on what has gone right this time around is fairly straightforward.

“They’re better players and we’ve more players playing at a higher level. That’s the key and that gives you a chance. Even though if [the goal wasn't scored], we might be crying now.

“This type of spirit, I don’t know how you coach that, but it’s there and if you tell any of these boys that they can’t beat Germany, they’ll look at you in a very strange way.”

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Paul Fennessy

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