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The Irish youngsters aiming to balance winning the Euros with Leaving Certs and A-levels

Colin O’Brien’s side kick off their campaign on Friday.

The Irish U17 side pictured prior to their final warm-up game.
The Irish U17 side pictured prior to their final warm-up game.
Image: Eóin Noonan/SPORTSFILE

A NUMBER OF Irish youngsters face a series of important tests both on and off the field in the coming weeks.

Colin O’Brien’s Ireland U17 side are getting set to host the European Championships, with their first game against Greece on Friday at Tallaght Stadium.

The team then play Czech Republic in Waterford’s RSC three days later, before returning to Shamrock Rovers’ home ground to face Belgium in their final group game on 9 May.

These big matches are not the only concern for the players. Some of the squad also have the Leaving Cert and A-levels to contend with in the coming weeks.

One of those with exams on the horizon is the player who, with Tottenham’s Troy Parrott unavailable as it stands, is undoubtedly the most high-profile individual in the squad — Man City’s Gavin Bazunu.

The 17-year-old goalkeeper played a handful of senior games with Shamrock Rovers in the League of Ireland, before linking up with the reigning Premier League champions last January.

Bazunu will complete his Leaving Cert in the coming weeks, having spent the past few months getting used to his new surroundings.

“He’s just going through that settling-in period,” O’Brien says. “He has his Leaving Cert to do in June, believe it or not, so that’s something he needs to get done.

“He’ll be starting really fresh with them in July, a proper pre-season and full season.

But his progress has been steady. He’s been training with the 18s, he’s been involved with some of the older players. He’s been competing in the 18s with the English goalkeeper, so he’s had that competition for a place straight away, which is healthy. Once he arrives fit to us this evening and trains well, he’ll be ready to go Friday night.”

Bazunu, meanwhile, is not the only player who will have to hit the books while simultaneously focusing on his football.

“We’ve got two boys doing the equivalent of their Leaving Cert [A-levels] in England. One of them will be doing an exam a week before the third game and if we progress, another player will be kicking into exams — Joe Hodge and Matt Everitt are the players.

“But they’re prepared for that. That organisation and education side is all in place between our own operations, along with the club and Uefa.”

Colin O'Brien Ireland U17s boss Colin O'Brien. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

What the players do on the pitch over the next few weeks could also go some way towards shaping their future. It will be the first time the majority of them have played in front of a big crowd with the home support cheering them on, which can bring pressure as well as working to the hosts’ advantage.

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“It’s something we’ve spoken about a lot during the season. You can talk about it, but for them to get a full understanding of it, they have to experience it. It’s part of their development. They’re excited about it. It’s also going to give us more knowledge on the players, you’re going to observe how they’re going to manage and cope in this environment, and young players can surprise you, they really can.

They know what’s coming. They didn’t have the qualifiers, but they played a lot of strong nations [in friendlies]. There’s nothing going to be different. They’ll train where we’ve trained, they’ll stay in the hotel. They’ve done the distances to Waterford and Tallaght, so from a logistical point of view, there’ll be nothing different.”

Ireland have performed admirably at the U17 Euros of late, reaching the quarter-finals for the previous two years on the trot. They were particularly unlucky last time out amid a controversial penalty shootout loss to the Netherlands

But assuming Parrott does not feature, there will be just one player from last year’s impressive effort, Preston goalkeeper Jimmy Corcoran, to retain a place in the squad.

“With youth teams, some countries, like ourselves, you could have differences with groups, you could be very strong in certain positions, then you’re challenged a little more to get certain spots filled, because it’s a high-level game.

“But [this Irish team have] a real good dynamic, there is quality in the group, there’s a real steeliness about these lads and everything that’s been put up to them this year, they’ve competed. When you go into competition, it can do different things to different players, it’s just up to us to help the players with that, but I know they’re really looking forward to it.”

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