Richie Sadlier: Leaders impress despite heartbreak for Ireland U17s

There was much to admire in the measured reactions of Nathan Collins

 James Corcoran of Ireland saves  a penalty from Daishawn Redan of the Netherlands but was  then sent off for a second yellow card after coming of his line too early   at Proact Stadium  in Chesterfield, England. Photograph:  Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

James Corcoran of Ireland saves a penalty from Daishawn Redan of the Netherlands but was then sent off for a second yellow card after coming of his line too early at Proact Stadium in Chesterfield, England. Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

 

Imagine how Ireland’s U-17 goalkeeper Jimmy Corcoran felt the moment he made that exceptional save in Tuesday’s penalty shootout against the Netherlands.

Now consider the feelings he had when he was sent off moments later having been told he had come off his line too soon. Two extreme and opposing emotions only seconds apart in one of the most meaningful occasions of his young life to date. How would you have handled it? What would you have done?

Viewers shared in his joy, outrage and heartbreak before his belated acceptance that it was the right call if you apply the letter of the law. Sport is an unforgiving landscape and seems very cruel at times, but it’s the ideal place to prepare you to deal with life. But not every teenager learns from their experiences and come back stronger.

The way the European Championships finals ended for this Republic of Ireland team will live longer with people than any other aspect of their performances. Young men in tears. Bemused and angry television commentary. Martin O’Neill marching determinedly towards the match officials.

Back-to-back wins over Bosnia and Denmark and reaching the quarter-finals of the Euro U-17s two years running are easier to forget. Are we getting close to the Brian Kerr days when we expected this – and even more – in youth international football?

The most impressive aspect for me, however – and several others have commented on it – was the measured reactions of captain, Nathan Collins, and coach, Colin O Brien.

Some players get media training and all coaches receive it when they do their badges, but to sound so professional and sensible in their post-match interviews was hugely impressive. I don’t think I’d have been able to have done anything like that if I was in either position. Connolly’s statement on Twitter the next day was exceptional. Striker Adam Ida even tweeted an unnecessary apology for missing his penalty kick.

I’ve had the bitter feeling of losing penalty shootouts in major youth tournaments. In addition to the disappointment of losing on penalties to Nigeria, we left the Under-20 World Cup convinced we were victims of bad refereeing.

We went there as reigning European champions and fancied our chances. Gary Doherty was through on goal early in the second half and was brought down deliberately by the last defender.

 Amazingly he gave a yellow card, and we left the stadium wondering what the outcome might have been.

If you’d put a microphone in front of me then I wouldn’t have been able to hold my tongue and given the kind of interview that gets you sanctioned today. Sportsmanship and accepting the result are lovely notions, in theory, but sometimes putting them in practice can feel impossible.

High points

O’Brien mentioned that the referee had warned the Dutch goalkeeper a couple of times to stay on his line. He could have used that as a sign of double standards, but he didn’t. Collins, for someone so young, was exceptional:

“There’s nothing we can do. It’s the referee’s decision. There’s nothing we can dwell on now, we just move on from it.”

He went on to praise the effort of all his team-mates. It was a masterclass in giving an interview in extremely trying circumstances which is just what you would hope, but mightn’t always get, from your captain. No digs at the match officials, no moans about injustice or pleas to be the fifth team allowed into the semi-finals.

Youth international tournaments, however, for a variety of reasons, will remain the high points in the careers of most that take part. The path into senior professional football is getting narrower by the season, particularly in recent years for players from Ireland.

Over the years I’ve met my former team-mates from some of the tournaments I played in and they never got near to replicating their performances again. Some weren’t good enough to progress, others were held back because of their attitudes and some tripped themselves up by getting involved with the wrong kind of mates.

Adolescence is characterised by constant change, growth, and learning experiences and there’s often no way to predict how anyone will turn out. But there are certainly ways to improve the support we can provide.

There’s only so much a national association can do to monitor the development of young players. Everyone accepts that. They all have far greater influences in their lives than their football managers. Not everyone gets the guidance they need or has stable adults around them or has the kinds of social support that would serve them well.

Maybe it’s time the FAI considered employing qualified people, like full-time welfare officers that could support them at this crucial stage. Clubs in England do it, no reason why the FAI couldn’t. It’s hard to explain the pressures and pitfalls talented young footballers are exposed to. Their growth as people is as important as the ability they have as players.

Hopefully this won’t be the pinnacle of these players’ careers. Hopefully they won’t meet each other in years to come dwelling on what-ifs, small margins and an overly fussy Czech referee. Hopefully they’ll fulfil their potential. They’ve all had a taste of success in international tournament and performed very well, but it won’t be that referee’s fault if they don’t get to do it again.

Elite youth sport is full of defining moments in the lives of those involved. You either grow from them or use them to excuse your future failings. Let’s hope it’s the former for most of these lads because God knows we need them.

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