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Gavin Whyte's classy Northern Ireland U-21 display points to a future at top

 

By Steven Beacom

Young Real Madrid midfielder Dani Ceballos earned £20,000 last week. Young Crusaders winger Gavin Whyte wouldn't earn that in a year in the Irish League.

But on Thursday night at Shamrock Park, they were on the same pitch as Spain and Northern Ireland played out an extraordinary European Championship Under-21 qualifier.

While Ceballos was on the winning side by a 5-3 scoreline, it was Whyte who wore a winning smile after the match, lifted by a superb performance that had the 2,300-crowd and those watching online raving about the Belfast boy and his team-mates.

The Northern Ireland Under-21 side had made a fine start to their campaign, amassing 10 points from their opening five games.

Top of the table Spain, though, were expected to outclass them. After all, this was a side filled with Spanish stars in waiting and players who were performing on a regular basis in La Liga.

They are used to more spectacular surroundings than Shamrock Park but, as they swaggered on to the field for their warm-up, the confidence oozed out of them.

That's what happens when you train daily and play alongside a modern day football icon like Cristiano Ronaldo and are coached by another all-time great Zinedine Zidane, as is the case with Real Madrid trio Ceballos, Jesus Vallejo and Borja Mayoral.

Spanish Under-21 captain Cebellos is being linked with Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Spurs and AC Milan having moved to the Bernabeu from Real Betis last year for around £16 million.

The transfer value of the entire Northern Ireland Under-21 squad wouldn't come close, but for all that the boys from the Bernabeu just couldn't shake off Ian Baraclough's feisty kids.

In a remarkable contest, the home side came from behind three times to make it 3-3 approaching the last quarter of the match. When Everton teenager Shayne Lavery fired home the third leveller, the La Liga lads were looking at the celebrating Northern Ireland players in amazement wondering where they were finding the character to mount comeback after comeback.

When fatigue set in late on, clinical Mayoral, who has been compared to Real Madrid great Raul, scored twice to complete a second half hat-trick and finally see off Baraclough's brave boys.

To run them so close was incredible. As one fan put it post-match, this was a game of Spanish princes versus paupers, yet it was the latter who came out looking like a million dollars.

The Northern Ireland side had players from clubs like Hartlepool, Oldham, Notts County and Nuneaton in comparison to the Spanish, who boasted future senior internationals from Valencia, Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad and Villarreal.

Then there were the local heroes, Derry City's Conor McDermott, Glenavon's Mark Sykes and Crusaders star Whyte who, as a part-time footballer, supplements his income from the game by working at Zace print and embroidery in Belfast, a business run by ex-Seaview team-mate and Glentoran great Paul Leeman.

Whyte revelled in making a fool of the Spanish defenders on more on one occasion on Thursday, but was respectful of his opponents in interviews when all was done and dusted.

He may not have the riches of Real's Ceballos, but the man from the Markets could clearly teach the Madrid midfielder some much-needed manners.

Ceballos was quoted as saying: "We can't play on pitches like this. There was only mud, there wasn't grass. It was practically impossible to play. It was zero degrees and we had to shower with cold water."

It's worth pointing out that moments after the game Ceballos was sitting on the steps inside the tunnel scrolling through his phone - perhaps by the time he returned to the dressing room all the hot water had gone!

Regardless of that cheap shot, Northern Ireland's youngsters did themselves proud on Thursday, showing that if you have heart, desire and commitment you can compete with superior players.

As Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill, an interested and admiring spectator said: "I was delighted with the Under-21 performance. In the past, maybe Under-21 teams would have gone under and come out on the other side of a really heavy defeat, but they didn't do that.

"Despite going behind three times in the game, they kept fighting back and in the end it was probably a little bit of fatigue more than anything else that kicked in.

"You've got to remember the level they are playing at; Spain's No. 9 and No. 10 play for Real Madrid and we have lads there who play in our domestic league and underage football in England. We didn't have that many who have much first-team experience in them so it really was a fantastic performance."

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