Northern Ireland’s under-age teams have been the subject of many a hyperbolic news story in recent weeks, this past week they garnered a fair bit of attention for the right, sporting reasons.
It was announced that the 2019 UEFA European Under-21 Football Championship qualifier matches against Spain (22nd March at Shamrock Park, Portadown) and Iceland (26th March at Coleraine Showgrounds) would be broadcast live from BBCNI Sport’s website. Alongside that entry to the games was free which led to a sizeable crowd for an Under-21 fixture.
Thursday night’s match against Spain may have ended in a 5-3 defeat for Ian Baraclough’s side but that didn’t tell the full story of a hardened battle between two teams that equalled each other for much of the game. Spain were packed full of players playing at the highest levels, Mikel Merino (Newcastle United), Mikel Oyarzabal (Real Sociedad), Dani Ceballos and Borja Mayoral (Real Madrid) all featured. Northern Ireland’s top performers were Irish League representatives Mark Sykes and Gavin Whyte alongside QPR (ex-Linfield) player Paul Smyth, Everton’s Shayne Lavery was among the goals.
That performance was enough to see Paul Smyth and Shayne Lavery called up to the senior squad for Saturday’s friendly with South Korea. The former going on to make his debut and subsequently score the winning goal – a massive step for the youth development process at the IFA.
Buoyed by Thursday’s impressive showing, the team took the pitch at Coleraine eager to steal a march on opposition, Iceland, in the search for 2nd place in the qualification group. Paul Smyth was suspended which meant a start for Ben Kennedy. Unfortunately, Baraclough’s side couldn’t find the breakthrough that was required despite sustained attempts at the Iceland goal. Iceland were not without their own threats and went close on numerous occasions, but Leeds youngster Bailey Peacock-Farrell was able to maintain his clean sheet.
Despite the stalemate Gavin Whyte was impressive once again, leading to U21 manager Ian Baraclough declaring that Whyte could be the next player to make a big impact on full time football across the water.
With 3 games remaining in their group, Northern Ireland must not concede that 1st place is out of sight. They must now concentrate on securing 2nd place and looking toward securing a play-off spot as one of the 4 best second placed teams. Northern Ireland travel to face Spain on 11th September and Iceland on 11th October before closing out their campaign at home to Slovakia on 16th October.