SOUTHAMPTON man Will Smallbone is proving to be the man for the big occasion for a classy-looking Republic of Ireland U21s as they are close to securing a place in the playoffs for the European Championships, and can still even win their group, if things go their way.
ith a level of form unprecedented at U21 level – this 3-1 defeat of Montenegro in front of a crowd of 3,126 in Tallaght Stadium was the fourth successive win – the Irish side are well-placed to achieve qualification for the Euro finals for the first time ever. Ireland have an encouraging spread of talent from across Irish football’s talent pool, evidence of that in goals scored by natives of Sligo, Cork and Hampshire and a stellar display from a German-born recruit.
Smallbone, who qualifies through his Kilkenny-born mother, had a testing season at club level with injury and illness but he’s well and truly delivering for the Irish U21s, scoring one goal and playing a role in a second. That’s three goals in two games for him in the space of four days, and with the Irish senior side crying out for some creativity, Smallbone’s display here will surely have been noted by Stephen Kenny. Debutants Eiran Cashin and Tayo Adaramola caught the eye while Borussia Monchengladbach’s Conor Noss was also a delight, comfortable and confident on the ball but also with a strong work ethic.
Smallbone broke the deadlock with a stunning finish from the edge of the box on 41 minutes and second-half goals from Liam Kerrigan and Tyreik Wright sealed the deal, as the response and only goal from Montenegro came too late.
Irish eyes now turn to Thursday’s meeting between table-toppers Italy and Sweden in Helsingborg, where if Italy avoid defeat, Ireland are guaranteed second place and a spot in the playoffs. Ireland could even still win the group, if the Italians draw with Sweden this week and if Ireland win away to Italy next week. However, a win for Sweden at home to the Italians could complicate things and leave Ireland needing to get something from their final group game, in Ascoli next week, but qualification is still there.
With an afternoon kick off on a sunny Bank Holiday, a lack of atmosphere led to a lack of intensity on the field, two sides sizing each other up for much of the first half. Montenegro enjoyed long spells of possession and right back Lee O’Connor, winning his 22nd cap at this level, was a busy man as the away side posed a threat.
The German-born Irish prospect Conor Noss became more of an influence as the game wore on, and he lurked with intent at the end of a good move involving Tyreik Wright and Liam Kerrigan on 17 minutes. On the half-hour mark, Noss powered his way past his marker and into the box, only for keeper Nikola Izevic to save, and another Noss shot on 36 minutes led to another corner.
As half time loomed, Ireland got themselves in front. A free kick from Smallbone was deflected, Kayode took the ball down to set up Smallbone who showed his technical ability to first control the ball and then hammer home the goal.
Ireland needed a save from Brian Maher to deny captain Nikola Krstovic nine minutes into the second half but on 56 minutes Jim Crawford’s men had the game wrapped up, a first goal at this level from UCD’s Kerrigan. Smallbone sent in the free kick, debutant Eiran Cashin headed into the box and Kerrigan had an easy finish.
And on 67 minutes it was 3-0 with another impressive attacking move. Sub Evan Ferguson produced a powerful run from midfield and a pass into the box which Cork lad Wright converted.
Keeper Maher lost his clean sheet record when Viktor Djukanovic profited from some slack Irish defending to score on 76 minutes but the home side retained their grip on the game, more chances late on from Smallbone and Ferguson. The Irish squad now enjoy a break and some down time with their families before regrouping for that test in Ascoli next Tuesday.
IRELAND: Maher; O’Connor, Cashin, McGuinness, Adaramola (Lyons 83); Smalbone, Noss (Kilkenny 63), Coventry, Wright; Kerrigan, Kayode (Ferguson 63).
MONTENEGRO: Izevic; Saletic, Babic, Obradovic, Pesukic; Janjic (P Vukcevic 69), Brnovic (Krstovic 60); Djukanovic, Divanovic (Strikovic 86), I Vukcevic (Mijovic 59); Krstovic.
REFEREE: J Petrik (Czech R)