Northern Ireland began their pursuit of a place at the Men’s U21 European Championship finals in 2021 with a disappointing 0-0 draw against Malta at Ballymena Showgrounds.
Ian Baraclough’s U21s enjoyed plenty of possession and produced lots of good approach work but too often lacked the killer pass and the killer instinct in front of goal.
The boys in green and white made the early running. Alfie McCalmont, who made his senior debut in the friendly against Luxembourg last night, had an effort from distance which was easily collected by Maltese keeper Andreas Vella.
Both David Parkhouse and Kyle McClean then squandered half-chances for the home side before Northern Ireland keeper Conor Hazard dived full length to push away a Kurt Shaw header on 30 minutes.
Four minutes later Caolan Boyd-Munce whipped a lovely cross into the area, however Jake Dunwoody just failed to connect with it and the ball was cleared.
As the break approached Parkhouse headed over the top from a corner, while an Eoin Toal slip almost let in Malta striker Zachary Brincat. The covering Kofi Balmer received a yellow card for bringing Brincat down as he threatened to race towards goal.
Just after the restart Boyd-Munce shot just wide from 20 yards, while Dunwoody’s drilled cross was cleared and in the 60thminute Vella did well to push away Dunwoody’s low drive.
Minutes later Bobby Burns headed over the top and then McCalmont scooped an effort wide.
In the 71stminute a Parkhouse header drifted over the bar, while down the other end Hazard blocked an Aidan Friggieri shot and moments later Northern Ireland substitute Lewis McCann missed an opportunity.
Right at the death substitute Ethan Galbraith played in Dunwoody with a lovely ball, however he hit his shot straight at Vella, and moments later Parkhouse’s bullet header was superbly pushed over the bar by Vella.
The U21s will be jetting off to Finland for another qualifier on Tuesday (10 September). They will also face Denmark, Romania and Ukraine in Group 8 in the qualification process for the finals in Hungary and Slovenia.
Northern Ireland U21s: Conor Hazard (captain), Eoin Toal, Bobby Burns, Kofi Balmer, Jake Dunwoody, Alfie McCalmont, Kyle McClean, David Parkhouse, Shea Gordon, Lewis Thompson, Caolan Boyd-Munce. Substitutes (used) Ethan Galbraith, Cameron Palmer, Lewis McCann, Chris Gallagher; (unused) Tommy Scott, Pierce Bird, Caolan Marron, Ali McCann, Jack Scott.
Malta U21s: Andreas Vella, Jean Borg (captain), Nicholas Pulis, Kurt Shaw, Aidan Friggieri, Zachary Brincat, Jan Busutill, Myles Beerman, Zachary Grech, Michele Sansone, Gary Camilleri. Substitutes: (used) David Xuereb, Jan Tanti; (unused) Timothy Aquilina, Jamie Zerafa, Marcus Grima, Omar Elouni, Kyle Gatt, Ayrton Attard, Zachary Cassar.