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2012 Under 21 Football Review  

As we approach the end of 2012, we cast a glance back at the performance of our Under 21 side leading into and during this calendar year.

Under 21

Under 21 Head Coach Noel King, who took up the position in the summer of 2010 following a decade of involvement with our International Women's teams, has brought a fresh and invigourating vibrancy to our Under 21 squad of fledgling international footballers.

His maiden contest, a 2011 UEFA Qualifier against Estonia at Tallaght in August 2010, while a dead rubber in qualification terms nevertheless offered hope for the future. The Under 21 age group, designed to be the catalyst for the growth and progression of senior international footballers had become dull and dreary, with little or no interest shown in the fare on offer, by the Irish sporting public and indeed the media.

That introductory contest resulted in a five nil success, with current senior internationals Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy both finding the net on the night. Hey, even Giovanni with cohort Marco at his side, was in attendance. Perhaps the fare on offer was a little too rich, they have never been seen at an Under 21 contest again?.

Preparation for the 2013 UEFA Championship qualifiers commenced in February 2011 with a trip to Cyprus followed by a visit to Portugal six weeks later. As his squad began to take shape, King and his management team prepared for the friendly visit of Austria to the Showgrounds in Sligo on the 9th August 2011. A bumper 'full house' attendance witnessed an impressive display full of quality in a richly merited two one success.

Three weeks later, King and his 'Team' returned to the Showgrounds, where they opened their qualifying campaign against Hungary with another impressive performance and two one victory, again watched by a 'doors closed' appreciative audience. The trip to powerhouse nation Turkey five days later ended in a one nil defeat, despite another invigorating performance from our young Tyros. An away trip to Liechtenstein produced a four one victory and the return contest five weeks later ended in a two nil success, back at the Showgrounds.

The squad returned to action in May 2012 with a two one friendly defeat by Denmark in Tallaght before returning to their now 'spiritual home' the Showgrounds, where top seeds Italy, with a 100% win record, were the visitors. Another packed house, another rip-roaring contest, recovering from a two goal deficit to earn a magnificent draw was the stuff of dreams.

The visit of Turkey to the Showgrounds in August 2012 provided the only major disappointment in this campaign. The visitors were of course formidable and for once the Irish boys did not fire on all cyclinders in a one nil defeat, which in reality quenched Championship Final qualification hopes. There was further disappointment when we went down to a two one defeat in Hungary in our next engagement.

The final contest of this exciting, sometime enchanting, journey took place in Casarano against Group winners Italy during September 2012 and what an event it was. Challenging conditions, incorporating a series of power failures, produced an elongated epic of ' Ten Commandments' proportions.

Italy dominated initial proceedings but were stunned after twenty three minutes when Sean Murray, one of six Irish debutants, struck a sublime shot from thirty yards to the roof of the net. The hosts regrouped and equalised following a corner after thirty five minutes. Two minutes later, the harsh dismissal of debutant defender Derek Williams, for a foul resulting in a penalty kick, appeared to cast a foreboding mood of depression. How deceptive appearances can be. Goalkeeper Aaron McCarey saved the spot-kick and the sides were level at half-time.

Twelve minutes into the second half, ten-man Ireland again shocked their hosts when Aaron Doran broke through the middle and espousing calmness personified, struck the ball to the net. Within minutes, the hosts were reeling again as Conor Henderson struck another superb long range effort to the back of the net. The shock was clearly too much for the locals as the lights went out in Casarano for nigh on twenty minutes and the players retreated to the changing rooms.

Upon the resumption of play, Ireland again demonstrated their quality when Doran again powered through the middle, outpacing his markers to deliver goal number four. Not surprisingly, the lights went out once again in Casarano!.

Another stop, another re-start and then another dismissal for Ireland as debutant midfielder Anthony Forde received two yellow cards in rapid succession. Backs were now certainly against the wall and Ireland did concede a late goal, but it was merely Italian consolation, as the nine stood firm to the whistle and the plaudits of victory reverberated around the Irish camp.

The next UEFA Competition is set to start early in 2013 and carries with it, the added incentive of qualification for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The bar has been raised, Noel King knows this and he will have fingers crossed for a favourable qualification draw when UEFA meet in Nyon on the 31st January 2013.

The practical prepartion process will commence six days later on the 6th February 2013, when Holland will be very welcome visitors to Ireland for a friendly contest.