Paul Doolin’s Republic of Ireland will play no part in the UEFA U19 Championships Elite Qualifying phase after a comprehensive defeat to Scotland at a wet and windy Markets Field in Limerick this evening.
Ireland, who needed only a draw to progress, were faced with an uphill task from the second minute. AFC Wimbledon centre-back, Ryan Sweeney, dallied in the face of a Scottish clearance, allowing Rangers striker, Ryan Hardie, in to pick his pocket and sidefoot home.
Straight from the kick-off, Irish striker, Euan “Frankie” Mulhern, drew a routine save from Scottish goalkeeper, Robby McCrorie. This was to be the hosts’ only shot on target of the day.
Despite being comfortably second best on the balance of play, there were some positives to be drawn from the first-half for Irish fans. Queens Park Rangers winger, Olamide Shodipo, looked a threat down the Irish right, while captain and Dundalk midfielder, Georgie Poynton, was very effective in snuffing out nascent Scottish attacks.
Ireland’s best chance of the half arrived in the 18th minute, when a rare combination between Mulhern and number ten, Connor Ronan, resulted in a left-wing cross from the latter that just evaded Shodipo at the back post.
In general however, the home side struggled to make headway in the attacking third. This Irish impotence going forward stood in stark contrast to the stream of chances afforded to the Scottish by Ireland’s insistence on cheaply conceding possession in their own half.
UCD midfielder, Dylan Watts, was robbed by Joseph Thomson in the Irish half in the 21st minute, allowing the latter to play in Oliver Burke on the right. James Talbot saved and held Burke’s first-time strike.
And moments later, Ireland again lost the ball in their own half, allowing Burke to play in number ten, Aidan Nesbitt, who beat Talbot at his near-post with a left-footed strike.
Scotland continued to pile on the misery. A poorly defended throw-in on the left resulted in a cross being fired into the Irish area. That man Burke flicked it on with a back-header, allowing right-back Ross McCrorie – completely unmarked – to fire home from six yards.
McCrorie nearly struck again from range in the 37th minute, forcing an excellent low diving save from Talbot. The Irish goalkeeper was also alive to block a subsequent effort on the rebound at point-blank range.
Ireland had the ball in the net just prior to half-time, courtesy of a Connor Ronan strike that was correctly ruled out for offside. They introduced Jason McClelland at the break, in place of the ineffective Graham Kelly, in a vain attempt to find a way back into the contest. Unfortunately, this change meant that Shodipo was shuffled over to the left flank for the second-half, greatly attenuating his influence on proceedings.
Two further reinforcements, in the shape of Ethan Boyle and Dundalk’s Michael O’Connor, had a similarly negligible impact on Ireland’s goal threat. Scotland were eminently comfortable in the defence of their lead and they further increased their advantage in the 67th minute, when Kilmarnock’s Greg Kiltie collected a right-wing Nesbitt cross at the back post and fired home.
That blow extinguished any remaining faint hope that Ireland might salvage the result they needed out of this one. The remainder of the game resembled a training exercise, with any further chances accruing to the rampant visitors.
Talbot made another great stop in the 75th minute, after a wonderful flick-up and volley from Nesbitt on the edge of the Irish area. And, with five minutes remaining of normal time, substitute Scott Wright found himself through on the Irish goal, only to mercifully shoot wide of the far post.
And so it is the Scottish who progress to the Elite Qualifying phase, finishing second in Group 1 – behind Slovenia who clinched top spot with a scoreless draw against Latvia in Terryland Park this evening.
For Ireland, it’s back to drawing board, after enduring elimination here at the hands of a far superior side – a side that reached the semi-finals of the equivalent U17 competition two years ago. Such grand achievements at youth international level are but a distant memory on these shores.