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QPR youngster has potential to be next in line for Ireland senior call-up

Ryan Manning delivered a man-of-the-match performance at Tallaght Stadium last night.

Ireland’s Ryan Manning with Hajiaga Hajiyev of Azerbaijan.
Ireland’s Ryan Manning with Hajiaga Hajiyev of Azerbaijan.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

KIERAN O’HARA AND Declan Rice attracted much of the pre-match publicity ahead of Ireland’s 2019 Uefa European U21 Championship qualification match with Azerbaijan.

The pair had just returned from a trip to Turkey with the Irish senior team, while Rice excelled, earning a man-of-the-match accolade for his display in Antalya.

Although both players in question produced solid performances at Tallaght Stadium last night, there was generally just one response when journalists were asked for their man-of-the-match towards the end of the encounter — Ryan Manning.

The QPR youngster had initially struggled to get into the game. In the first half, the visitors sat deep and there was minimal space to exploit.

Amid a crowd of Azerbaijani bodies, the deep-lying Ireland midfielders — Rice and Josh Cullen — struggled to get Manning and fellow attacker Reece Grego-Cox into the game. Out wide, Ronan Curtis and Jake Mulraney similarly weren’t having much joy.

Consequently, Manning started dropping deeper as the first half drew to a close, and just before the break, he tested an under-worked Kamran Ibrahimov with a shot from distance, and the away side’s goalkeeper also needed to be alert to deny Grego-Cox on the rebound.

In the second half, however, like Ireland in general, Manning improved considerably.

The Galway native became more influential and was at the heart of much of the hosts’ best moments in attack. His cross could and perhaps should have led to Jake Mulraney winning a penalty 10 minutes after the break, but the Inverness Caledonian Thistle winger’s appeals were ignored by the officials.

As full-time approached and three points were badly needed, the Boys in Green required a player to take responsibility and grab the match by the scruff of the neck, and Manning, more so than anyone else, duly obliged.

With Ireland struggling to break down a well-organised Azerbaijan backline in open play, a set-piece was increasingly looking like their best outlet for a winner.

The 21-year-old former Galway United youngster’s deliveries were frequently excellent, while he also continued to pose a direct threat — just before the hour mark, Ibrahimov had to tip a well-executed free-kick of his over the bar.

Roy Keane attends the game The Irish management team watch last night's match at Tallaght Stadium. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

From the ensuing Manning corner, in shades of what was to come, Shaun Donnellan connected with the ball well, but the Yeovil player’s header was cleared off the line by defender Sertan Tashgin.

Shortly thereafter, Ronan Curtis headed wide from a Manning corner, before Ryan Sweeney had a goalbound header blocked following another superb ball in from Ireland’s primary creative force.

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Manning was visibly fired up at this point and was perhaps a tad fortunate to stay on the pitch ultimately. After being booked when a stray arm left an Azerbaijani opponent injured, with 10 minutes remaining, he avoided a second yellow, despite appearing to go down rather easily in the box in an attempt to win a penalty.

The young attacking midfielder kept his head when it mattered most, however. Given the tense nature of the moment, a lesser player might have made a mess of the final 96th-minute free kick, with Ireland in desperate need of a goal.

Yet Manning produced another precisely executed cross, from which Donnellan eventually scored the winner.

The Irish senior management team were watching on and will likely have been impressed with what they saw, while Noel King certainly was.

Afterwards, the U21s boss praised Manning for continually showing for the ball and trying “something different” on occasion.

He’s a lovely left foot, scores goals, creates goals, he’s making a living out of football, which is great,” King added.

“He kept going, [even though] he was kicked and pushed, which is fair enough.”

While Manning arguably looks the best placed of the U21 team to follow in Rice and O’Hara’s footsteps in gaining senior recognition, his club form needs to be more consistent if he is to thrive at a higher level for Ireland.

It has been well documented how impressive he was last year after breaking into QPR’s first team and making 18 league appearances.

In 2017-18, however, the midfielder has had to be more patient. Of the Championship club’s 38 games so far this season, Manning has started just five. On the plus side though, two of those have been earlier this month, including a game in which he scored the opening goal amid a 3-1 victory over promotion-chasing Aston Villa.

And playing an integral role in what could prove a crucial win for King’s side might just be the confidence boost Manning needs to push on further, as he aims to end a frustrating campaign on a high.

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Paul Fennessy

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