Monday 18 December 2017

Ireland U-21s: Dylan Connolly goal kills off the Andorrans as Roy Keane watches on

Glen Rea, top, and Dylan Connolly in action
Glen Rea, top, and Dylan Connolly in action
Roy Keane watching from the stands

A BOY called Dylan was on song for the Republic of Ireland U21s as they had a rather laboured start to their European Championship qualifying campaign in Waterford last night.

Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane were among the attendance of 1,588 in the RSC to see Noel King's U21 outfit, though the hoped-for flood of goals failed to materialise for the home side who had to make do with a 1-0 win over the group minnows.

Dylan Connolly learned his trade in grounds like the RSC while in the Shelbourne colours before his move to Ipswich Town and his 31st minute goal proved crucial on the night.

Recruiting young blood to the senior squad is clearly an issue - O'Neill has handed debuts to just four players in his reign and they have an average age of 25 - and he is on the lookout for new players.

Connolly and Jack Byrne had good moments and Oxford man Callum O'Dowda also has potential, but O'Neill and Keane will not have unearthed any gems fro this early stage of the U21 campaign.

The problem for Irish football, as it waits for these players to develop, is the restricted access to first-team football.

Of the Irish starting XI last night, only four can be considered as regulars for their own clubs, two in the Championship (the excellent Watford defender Tommie Hoban and Fulham's Sean Kavanagh) and two in League Two (Jack Connors and Callum O'Dowda).

The others are either on loan in a lower league (Danny Rogers, Conor Wilkinson) or are still awaiting their chance at clubs like Tottenham (Kenny McEvoy) and Manchester City (Jack Byrne), and while Waterford lad McEvoy will have enjoyed this game on home soil, they will all need to make a mark at club level before senior progress can even be considered.

The U21s were well off the pace in terms of qualification for the 2015 Euro finals, so it was vital for King's side to get off to a good start in their bid to qualify for Euro 2017, the finals to be held in Poland.

A win was expected as Andorra's record at this level is so poor: the Andorrans have managed just one draw and no wins from their last 18 competitive games and conceded 67 goals in that run. But goals were hard to come by for the Irish side in Waterford.

It was a new squad, most of them playing together for the first time and a debut on the

Waterford RSC surface for many, so naturally it took the boys in green time to get into their stride.

There was an early threat from Connolly, as his shot was tipped over by keeper Victor Pinto on 19 minutes.

But the breakthrough finally came on 31 minutes, a well-worked move finished off by former Shelbourne man Connolly. Conor Wilkinson, the lanky striker currently on loan to Oldham from Bolton, saw his shot saved, local boy McEvoy picked up on the rebound and Connolly was on hand to tap the ball over the line.

Jack Byrne tried to make it 2-0 just before the break but his shot from distance was saved by the keeper and put out for a corner.

Ireland pressed for another goal after the break, but despite the urgings in midfield from Jack Byrne, none came.

Wilkinson blazed over when he was in a good position on 58 minutes while Jack Byrne tested the keeper with a shot on 63 minutes.

The misses almost proved costly in the 81st minute when Andorra managed to score, but the gloriously-named Aaron Alburquerque's header was deemed offside.

Ireland almost scored in added time, the Andorran keeper saving at close range from O'Dowda and then sub Sean Maguire, the ex-Waterford United man making his U21 debut, but in the end a 1-0 win had to do.

One of the problems for the manager at this level is the long gap between games - this game was King's first competitive match since last September, and he now has to wait another six months for the next game, then a burst of activity (games away to Andorra, home to Lithuania, away to Italy and at home to the Lithuanians in the space of a few weeks). Plenty of food for thought from Suirside, then.

ireland u-21 1 andorra u-21 0

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