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Football: We can do it again, says Shiels

By Robert Jones

Northern Ireland 17s head for Maldegem, north-west of Brussels, next week as they get set to face Moldova, Montenegro, and hosts Belgium, in a bid to finish in the top two and progress to the 'Elite Stage' of the UEFA 17s Tournament. The grand finals take place in Turkey next May.

Skipper Paddy McLaughlin is relishing another crack at playing against some of Europe's top players.

The likeable Newcastle United player said: "The experience of playing last time, a year young, will be a great help. There were three of us in last year's panel, who were myself, Conor Devlin and Chris Curran. We know what to expect, we know the standard, and we can pass on our experience to the rest of the squad, It is a honour to play for your country, and I appreciate how privileged I am to be named captain of the team"

The former Larne Youth player spoke with maturity beyond his years on the preparation for these championships.

"In the early stages, results-wise, things didn't reflect our performances against some of Europe's top nations at this level. We took a couple of heavy defeats against England and Turkey, but the learning curve was unbelievable. We have taken a lot from those matches, the squad is a lot more organised, a lot more together, and we can only go forward from here. Easier games maybe wouldn't have given us the opportunity to analyse and correct some of the issues."

On the chances of progression, McLaughlin was taking nothing for granted.

"Belgium will be tough, especially at home, and both Montenegro and Moldova will be very hard to break down. But our aim has to be to win the group. This particular age group has a very good record of progressing - we must strive to maintain it."

"We have got to take a lot of positives out of our preparation," said manager Kenny Shiels.

"Trying different formations, and players playing in different positions. It's been very difficult to settle on a final squad.

"As an age group we have qualified for the elite stage for the last five years. There is no reason why we shouldn't make it six in a row."

Northern Ireland will not take anything for granted. Since Serbia and Montenegro have separated, it will be Montenegro's first championship as a nation, and you can be sure they will be out to make an impression. Moldova are a fast-emerging nation, and ran our Under-21s very close during the summer. The Belgians in their own back yard in the final game will be tough.

Ten of the squad are home-based, and eight are with cross-channel clubs. Once again four of the squad are eligible to compete again next year.

Last word goes back to McLaughlin, who would relish the chance to put right the results against Turkey and England in the latter stages of this competition. He says: "We will only progress as players and as a nation by playing against the best, it's up to us, so bring it on." will keep you up to date with all the action from the games with reports and pictures.

Match Schedule;

Northern Ireland v Moldova Maldegem 22 Oct ko 18.00(local time)

Northern Ireland v Montenegro Aalter 24 Oct ko 15.00 (local time)

Northern Ireland v Belgium Maldegem 27 Oct ko 16.00 (local time)

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