Belfast Telegraph

O'Neill's heroes inspirational for Northern Ireland youngsters: Stephen Craigan

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland Under-19 manager Stephen Craigan believes the heroics of the senior squad are proving inspirational for the country's young talent.

And he insists that the domino effect will help Northern Ireland in the future.

Michael O'Neill's men are, of course, waiting to see who they will face in the Euro 2016 finals with the group draw taking place in Paris on December 12. One week earlier, the elite round draw for the European Under-19 Championship will be held with Craigan's side in the mix after qualifying earlier this month.

Craigan's teenagers came through their group in Russia, defeating Norway 2-1 and drawing 1-1 with the hosts. They may have lost their final match 2-0 to Slovakia, but had done enough to advance to the next stage.

It was a fantastic achievement for the kids, following on from the success of O'Neill's men who last month qualified for the Euro 2016 finals - the nation's first major tournament since the 1986 World Cup.

"What Michael's team did was inspirational for the boys," said Under-19 boss Craigan, who won 54 caps.

"They were all talking about Northern Ireland making it to the Euro 2016 finals. It was a source of great encouragement for them to try and qualify for the next stage of their own tournament.

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"And it also got them thinking and hoping about progressing their careers so that they can be in the next batch of players who reach a major tournament at senior level.

"They have witnessed the great nights at Windsor Park and want to experience that in the future. It is a great incentive for them all."

Craigan's team will be one of 28 sides in the December 3 draw, with the elite phase made up of seven groups of four with the group winners joining hosts Germany in next year's finals from July 11 to 24.

The former Motherwell defender added: "For us to qualify was fantastic. There were 56 teams in at the first stage and now we are down to the last 28.

"We played all our group games in Sochi in Russia which was a real challenge. For starters it was quite a journey for the boys to get there, with many having to take three flights to Heathrow and then to Moscow and on to Sochi over the course of 19 hours.

"Once we got there, the hotel wasn't the best and the pitches weren't great. That may not seem like much but modern day footballers, even youngsters, are used to everything being just right for them, so I told them that this tournament was going to be a test of character for them as well as a test of their ability.

"The good thing is that we have some really strong minded lads in the squad.

"In a three-game mini-tournament it is important to get points on the board early on which is what we did by beating Norway and drawing with Russia. In the end that was enough.

"We were fourth favourites to go through and ahead of the matches, the Russian coach was talking about his team being in a tough group. He mentioned Slovakia and Norway but not us and we used that in the games.

"I don't get a lot of coaching time with the players before the games, but I try to give them as much as possible in terms of their own job and information on the opposition.

"Once the games kick-off, it is all about encouraging them and trying to ensure that their hard work, application and talent shines through.

"Now we could draw Spain, England, France or other big nations in the elite phase. The most important thing is that qualifying will expose our players to more international football which is what they need to progress further.

"They can push themselves on against different styles and different techniques and after achieving what they did in Sochi, they can do it with a bit of belief. All of this will help them hopefully go on and become key players for the Northern Ireland senior side in years to come."

Names to watch out for are Rangers midfielder Jordan Thompson, Norwich's Joe Crowe, Motherwell's Ben Hall, Cliftonville's Levi Ives, 16-year-old Ballymena United striker Matthew Shevlin and Under-19s skipper Ben Kennedy, currently playing first-team football with Stevenage.

In recent years, the Irish FA have had issues with some of the youngsters coming through their ranks opting to play for the Republic rather than Northern Ireland. Interestingly, the Republic Under-19s did not qualify for the elite stages.

Craigan's take: "Regardless of how the Republic did in qualifying, with us making the next stage it shows we are making strides at this level to combine what we are doing at senior level. Our success reaffirms to players that if they stay with us, they can hopefully progress their careers."

Belfast Telegraph


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