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Friday, 06 November 2015 09:02

Young Dragons keep their shield

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THURSDAY 5th NOVEMBER, Dragon Park. Persistent rain.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND 1 SCOTLAND 1, WALES 3 NORTHERN IRELAND 1 (Under 16 Victory Shield)
What to do on a wet Thursday in November? Well, a day out in Newport wouldn't normally be my first thought, but that's where I find myself today, thanks to a belated discovery that Wales is hosting the Under 16 Victory Shield tournament - advance publicity was virtually nil. Today is the deciding, third round of games at the Newport Sports Village complex.

Until this year, the Victory Shield tournament between home nations under 16 sides, had been played throughout the season. However, following the loss of sponsors Sky Sports and participants England (who have decided the other home nations aren't the sort of opposition they want for their schoolboys), it's been re-formatted as a week-long tournament in a host country, with the Irish Republic taking England's place.

Results earlier in the week mean any one of the four sides could still lift the Shield. The first game, kicking off a noon on the main Stadium pitch, has Scotland on three points playing the Republic on just one, then Wales (with three points) meet Northern Ireland (top of the table with four) at the relatively new Dragon Park. The crowd for midweek daytime games like this is, of course, made up of a mix of parents, club representatives and others involved in the football 'business' in some way - only that can explain a number of middle-aged men making detailed notes.

Out on the heavy athletics stadium pitch, the Irish and Scottish boys seem a long way from the crowd and I find it hard to get engaged. The pace of the game is rather slow, both sides quite patient in their build-up, with little to light up a grey afternoon. Scotland look technically competent but dour, and hope individuality hasn't been coached out of these schoolboys already. The Republic, on the other hand, seem more adventurous on the break, but are more wasteful of possession. They have all the chances in the first half, and finally get a deserved lead to the delight of an Irish group over to my left. Near me, a Scotsman personifies frustration throughout the half, berating the officials and barking his unheard advice "Early, early" at the youngsters over and over again.

Scotland equalise from the penalty spot early in the second half and the game opens out a bit after this. Both sides have their moments, but in the worsening conditions the draw becomes ever more likely. Despite a late attacking flurry by the Scots, that's how it ends. This means that the final game over at Dragon Park will decide the 2015 champions - all Wales and Northern Ireland need to do is win.

Dragon Park is only couple of hundred yards away, but it's a different world from the stadium: compact, with a nice new playing surface. Spectator facilities are all on one side, in a low-level, four-row stand that's OK for a training facility but not really built for a crowd. The money has clearly been spent on the main building on the other side of the pitch, not this most basic of stands, which runs only about half the length of the pitch. Nevertheless, on such a wet day it's welcome cover.

From the outset, the Wales v Northern Ireland game seems different from the earlier one. It could partly be the effect of being close to the action, but there's no mistaking the different tempo. It's good to see the Welsh youngsters start with confidence, and in the opening five minutes there's more flair and individuality than we saw in ninety earlier. Wales take the game to the Irish and are rewarded with a goal when Cardiff City youngster Sion Spence drills in a low shot. At this point they're well on top, captain Ethan Ampadu an authoritative and distinctive figure in midfield, while Benjamin Cabango looks solid at centre-back and Rabbi Matonda's runs at defenders cause plenty of trouble. Smallest player on the pitch Elliot Thorpe also shows a remarkable ability to retain possession against boys twice his size.

Towards the end of the half the game becomes more even, with Northern Ireland starting to exploit gaps in the left side of the Wales defence, and it's from this flank that Jordan McEneff launches a spectacular dipping shot that drops over Wales keeper Pryzbeck to level the scores.

The second half begins with both sides having spells of pressure, but gradually Wales begin to look the more likely to score. Time's running out, though, and a draw would be enough to give the Irish only their second-ever title. It needs a moment of inspiration to break the deadlock, and it's one of Matonda's powerful runs that does the trick: he surges down the left and fires past Webber in the Irish goal.

The boys in green must now press for an equaliser, and much of the play is now in the Welsh half. Corners, free-kicks, chances - all survived with varying degrees of ease, but still the announcement of "a minimum of four added minutes" adds to the tension. But we needn't have worried: as the Irish push up, and Wales seek respite by hitting long clearances, one loose ball heads for the half-way line. Irish keeper Webber and Wales sub Steffan Buckeley converge on it, the latter reaching it first and hitting it deep into the Irish half... and watches it drop into the Irish net ! A goal the Wrexham youngster will remember for the rest of his life.

At 3-1 in stoppage time, Wales are assured of the points and all that remains to delay the Welsh celebrations is a slightly protracted 'closing ceremony', which unfortunately takes place with all four squads facing away from the spectators. Eventually though, the Welsh youngsters are set free and can race over with the Shield to their parents and supporters in the stand. From what I've seen today, they deserve it.

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