Ollie O’Neill winner with the last breath breathes new life in the European Championship qualifying campaign
OLLIE OLLIE OLLIE, Oi Oi Oi.
Ireland’s U21 year olds saved their hopes for the UEFA championships when Ollie O’Neill scored with the last kick in the match against Sweden in Tallaght.
Fulham rookie O’Neill was introduced in 84 minutes with Boys in Green desperately chasing the goal to save his campaign.
And with the game deep into overtime, he struck.
The brilliant captain Conor Coventry picked up a loose ball in midfield and fed it quickly behind fullback Emil Holm when O’Neill rushed at it.
The striker hurried forward, hit the ball inside Holm on his favorite foot and then hit it sweetly just inside Samuel Brolin’s nearest post.
As he ran towards the corner flag to celebrate with some of the 1,525 spectators, the referee blew a full-time signal as Ireland deserved the late, late victory to save their campaign.
Without that goal, Ireland would be seven points behind the Swedes, with one match in hand, and five behind Italy, after playing one more match.
Instead, they are now four points behind the Swedes, have a game in progress, and still go to Sweden.
It is by no means obvious to win top position or second place with home clashes with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro and upcoming visits to Sweden and Italy.
But it has given Ireland a chance to fight again in 2022 after a tough 2021 when they lost to Montenegro and Italy and drew with Luxembourg to go with their three wins.
And it was well deserved after a second half when Ireland gave everything to the final signal.
A squad that lacks the qualified Gavin Bazunu, Andrew Ombamidele, Nathan Collins, Jason Knight, Adam Idah, Troy Parrott and Aaron Connolly has developed more stars.
Stephen Kenny and his assistant Keith Andrews were in Tallaght, and there are some who may soon take the step up to join his already promoted eight.
Will Smallbone sees a class apart and will push for advancement if able to re-establish himself in the Southampton team.
Conor Coventry has been called before and is a mini-Josh Cullen – the pair both came via West Hams – while impressing in the Championship in Peterborough.
And midfield colleague Gavin Kilkenny is currently also battling his stuff for Championship high flyers Bournemouth.
After a quiet first half with a few Ross Tierney half-chances and Smallbone efforts, all Ireland had to show for their efforts as they took control.
Especially captain Coventry took the step up and drove the team forward even though it took time to open up the Swedes despite good play.
Kilkenny had a mistake at the end of a nice free-floating move he started himself in midfield.
But all too often, cross men found in yellow shirts rather than green when Ireland peppered the sexyards box with balls but not the goalkeeper with shots.
Sweden was also a threat at the break with Amin Sarr flaming over after the guests nodded the ball when Jake O’Brien was caught holding the ball on the halfway line.
But it was a goal from Ireland that looked more likely as substitute Will Ferry had two great chances within seconds of coming on.
The first of 69 minutes happened when Kilkenny intercepted a pass in midfield and picked out Smallbone who released the unmarked ferry rushing in from the right.
It was his first involvement in the match and he advanced towards goal just to take too many touches when he tried to switch to his stronger left foot to shoot which allowed Vagic to clear.
Seconds later, a quick free kick from Smallbone left-back Joel Bagan sent into the area and his low cross found Ferry unmarked at the far post just for his first shot to fly over.
Kayode then turned a dangerous post from Wright next under pressure from Pavle Vagic with his last action of the match as time ran out for Boys in Green.
Ferry came close again before Ireland had the best chance of the match in 81 minutes through Tyreik Wright.
It started on the right with Ferry’s deep cross being led back into the risk area by Smallbone with Coventry getting a shot that was diverted into Wright’s Road.
But it was on the outside’s weaker right foot and he could not get enough power on it to beat the Swedish goalkeeper Brolin who did brilliantly to get back over the goal to palm it off.
SEN SEN SHOW
Seconds later, Evan Ferguson shot outside and replaced Conor Noss got a shot saved when the match ticked against overtime and Sweden got ready to celebrate a draw.
But just before the final whistle, O’Neill struck.
Sun Star Man – Conor Coventry (Ireland)
Ireland U21: Maher 7; O’Connor 7, McGuinness 6, O’Brien 6, Bagan 6; Coventry 8, Kilkenny 7; Smallbone 8 (Noss 84, 7), Tierney 6 (Ferry 68, 7), Wright 7 (O’Neill 84, 7); Kayode 6 (Ferguson 77, 7).
Sweden U21: Brolin 7; Holm 6, Ousou 6, Vagic 7, Svensson 6; Walemark 6 (Nygren 68, 6), Gustavsson 7, Hussein 7, Elanga 7; Al Hajj 6 (Prica 79, 6), Sarr 6 (Edvardsson 68, 6).
Referee: P Kralovic (Slovakia) 6.