Wales deny Northern Ireland a share of Victory Shield glory
The Northern Ireland players were forced to watch as Welsh captain Tyler Roberts lifted the Victory Shield at the Ballymena Showgrounds on Thursday night.
It can't have been easy for the schoolboys, who went into the last game of the campaign in the knowledge that a win over Wales could give them a share of the famous old trophy. In the end, a Roberts-inspired Wales secured both a 2-0 win and the trophy despite a steady performance from Stephen Robinson's side.
Like Northern Ireland, Wales' senior team are flying high in the European Championship Qualifiers. However, Wales' success is based on talented young footballers, while by Michael O'Neill's own omission Northern Ireland are struggling to produce players.
Speaking after Wales' first outright Victory Shield success since 1948, manager and FAW Technical Director Osian Roberts said: “It's been a long wait for us to win this trophy, but it has been worth the wait. It's a good time for Welsh football and we have a great young group of talented boys here. We have huge hopes for them in the future.
“They've worked hard all year and got what they deserved. They've scored goals in all three games and conceded only once. They've achieved something special and no one can take that away from them, but we want them to achieve so much more.
“We expect more than a couple of them to become full internationals. We've high hopes for this group as we believe they're a special group. Chris Coleman has already worked with these guys and he knows them well.”
Perhaps the history books provide a note of caution for Wales. Northern Ireland's highly-regarded 'Class of 2000' Victory Shield side that won the tournament produced just two internationals, Rangers star Dean Shiels and current international captain Steven Davis. Many of Davis' old team mates have either dropped out of football or ply their trade beneath the Irish League. The likes of Conall Murtagh, Henry McStay, Chris Kingsberry, Lee Windrum and Robbie White never quite fulfilled their early potential.
On the night, Northern Ireland started brightly. If referee Steven Taylor had awarded a penalty for the blatant pull on Liam McKenna's shirt from a sixth minute corner kick, perhaps things might have been different.
Unfortunately, the Ulstermen seldom bothered the Welsh goal. A 28th minute Tyler Roberts header from a free kick gave Wales the lead, before a superb goal from Liam Cullen in the 64th minute secured the Shield for the visitors. Northern Ireland's best chance arrived two minutes from time, but substitute Alex Carolan's effort skipped just past the post.
While it was Wales who lifted the Shield, Northern Ireland's campaign was far from a disappointment. They kicked off the tournament with a superb 2-1 victory over Scotland in Glasgow thanks to goals from Liam McKenna and Jack White. That result was followed by an unfortunate 1-0 defeat to England at Stangmore Park in Dungannon. The 2-0 defeat to Wales at the Showgrounds rounded off a campaign of mixed fortunes.
It's now up to this young group of Northern Irish men to step up to the plate and make a career for themselves in professional football. Their next task in the colours of their country will be next year's Under-17 European Championships.
Belfast Telegraph Digital