Northern Ireland’s Under-18 Schoolboys brought their 2022 Centenary Shield campaign to a close with a 2-2 draw away to Republic of Ireland Schoolboys.
A last-gasp own goal from Odhran McCart prevented Northern Ireland from taking all three points at Maginn Park in Buncrana, Co Donegal.
Following narrow defeats to Scotland and England, and a fine 3-0 win over Wales, Frankie Wilson’s side were aiming to end the competition on a high, but it was not to be.
Aaron Wightman and Patrick Kelly, who were in the Northern Ireland U18s squad for the Football Federations Cup in Spain last week, were both included in the starting line-up – and they had a big impact on the game.
Northern Ireland, who arguably missed injured pair Liam McStravick and Jack Patterson, were the more dominant team in the first half, while the hosts were on top after the break. A draw was probably a fair result in the end.
Kelly fired over the top early on and Wightman had a blistering run which was halted by a last-ditch tackle.
Lively Republic midfielder Michael McCullough, who was the man of the match, stroked the ball into the net on 14 minutes, however he handled the ball as a clearance from Northern Ireland keeper Rian Brown fell to him inside the area and the ‘goal’ was chalked off.
Minutes later McCullough curled a free-kick just wide of the post and then Republic striker Michael Ragget dragged an effort past the upright.
In the 23rd minute Wightman sped down the right wing and cut inside before clipping the ball towards goal - and Kelly was on hand to finish with a deft header.
Shane Haughey sent Jack McFeely clear but Republic keeper Reece Byrne got down well at his feet to push the ball away and then McFeely powered forward again only for Byrne to race off his line and grab the ball as he was about to pull the trigger.
In the 34th minute McFeely fed Kelly but he failed to get a decent contact with the ball and the Republic keeper produced another good stop from his low shot.
Three minutes after the restart Odhran McCart conceded a penalty. Republic substitute Zach Dunne jinked his way towards goal and McCart’s sliding challenge on him was deemed to be a foul by the referee. Brown got his hands to McCullough’s spot kick but the ball nestled in the bottom corner.
The Northern Ireland keeper had to be alert to push away another McCullough shot in the 54th minute and then did well to keep out a close range strike from Republic captain Charlie O’Brien.
As the hailstones hammered down Tadgh Walsh blasted a shot over the bar on 67 minutes before Kelly fed Northern Ireland wing back Lewis Tosh and he smashed the ball into the side netting.
In the 70th minute Wightman was chopped down by Kieran Cruise inside the area and he stepped up to take the resulting spot kick. He finished it with aplomb, sending the keeper the wrong way.
With McCullough pulling the strings in midfield, the Republic continued to push forward but Northern Ireland kept them at bay with a series of solid blocks.
In the 88th minute Brown got down well to smother a low drive from Kieran Cruise.
Down the other end Kelly fired in a free-kick which was comfortably saved by Byrne.
The Republic equalised via the last move of the game - four minutes into added time. McCullough whipped in a corner and it came off the back of McCart’s head and dropped into the net. It was a real sucker punch.
Northern Ireland U18 Schoolboys: Rian Brown, Ewan McCoubrey, Lewis Tosh, Aidan Kelly (captain), Odhran McCart, Donal Scullion, Aaron Wightman, Ryan McKay, Patrick Kelly, Shane Haughey, Jack McFeely. Substitutes: (used) Jack Montgomery, Joe Curran, Ben Leek; (unused) Jamie Ray (GK), Caolan Millen, Luca McGreevey, Max Greer.
Republic of Ireland U18 Schoolboys: Reece Byrne, Michael Keyes, John O’Donovan, Eanna Clancy, Charlie O’Brien (captain), Tadgh Walsh, Michael McCullough, Steven Healy, Lennon Gill, Michael Ragget, Kieran Cruise. Substitutes: Kian Clements (GK), Oisin Coleman, Alex Healy-Byrne, Darragh Reilly, Leon Ayinde, Zach Dunne, David Tarmey.