Wednesday 26 October 2016

German-born Ireland Under-21 'keeper hopes for green victory

Under 21 Justin Merz
Under 21 Justin Merz

THE FANS may not quite be flooding the streets, but Berlin expects to have some celebrations underway by around 9.30pm tonight.

But in one Irish bar in the German capital, a German native who is a former team-mate of the newest recruit of Joachim Low's senior squad will wear his green jersey, fly a tricolour of some form and hope that Ireland can come up with an unlikely win, to make sure that Ireland and Germany are represented at Euro 2016 next season.

The main job for Justin Merz these days is his role as goalkeeper for Viktoria Berlin, a side who play in the regional leagues in Germany, usually playing in front of crowds of between 500 and 1,000. His club career has seen him take a backwards step, having spent his earlier career with Karlsruhe and then second-tier side Union Berlin.

But a single Irish U21 cap which he won last year, having qualified for Ireland through a grandparent, is still a source of pride for the 23-year-old and his dream in the long term is to work his way back up the ladder in Germany and get a move to a club in the UK, and then see if he can make progress at international level.

Yet his heart is still with the boys in green. "I hope that Ireland can win in Dublin tonight," Merz told The Herald.

"It looks like Germany will qualify for France anyway as they only need a point from the last two games and they would expect to beat Georgia next week, so maybe Ireland can get the win and the two nations will go to France."

Merz, who came to the attention of the FAI scouts last year and was capped by Noel King, spent time with some German clubs without getting first team action but a summer move to Viktoria Berlin has earned him some game time.

"The standard is below the top in the Bundesliga but we get good attendances, maybe 2,000 some weeks, and for me it's good to get games. If we do well this season we can get up into what is the third division in the Bundesliga but I would love to get to England, if I can get a club."

Merz won his sole Irish U21 in a friendly against Qatar, played in Germany as it happens, last year and while none of that Ireland U21 panel have so far some though - though current U21 prospect Jack Byrne is likely to make the grade, Merz has an insight into the German camp.

"Bernd Leno, who is in the squad for the game in Dublin as the third-choice goalkeeper, is a friend of mine," says Merz.

"We are the same age and we came up together in the youth team at Stuttgart. I was glad to see him get the call from Jogi Löw for this game, we are in contact all the time, I texted him to say 'well done' when he got the call as to be the third-top keeper in Germany s a big honour. But I also told him that I hope Ireland can win in Dublin," he joked.

"Playing for Ireland's U21 team last year was a nice honour for me. I know I can't think about being in the Irish squad now as I need to be playing every week for a club at a good level, maybe higher than the level I am at now, but I would love to be in the Irish squad again."

Merz is one of a handful of German-born players, still plugging away at lower-league level in their native land, who have under-age caps with Ireland. Patrick Kohlmann, capped five times at U21 level (2003-04) is with Holstien Kiel in the third tier while Selcuk Tidim, who has one U21 cap, is at regional side Neumunster.

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