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Friday 29 Dec 2023
2023 review: Northern Ireland Under-21s

Northern Ireland’s men’s Under-21 team had to wait until September to play their first competitive matches of the year.

Back in February they were drawn to compete in Group F in the qualifying series for UEFA U21 Euro 2025 along with top seeds England, Ukraine, Serbia, Azerbaijan and Luxembourg.

The involvement of England and Ukraine in the 2023 U21 Euros meant games in Group F did not get under way until September. England won this year’s tournament, which was staged in Romania and Georgia.

By the time the first matches came around there was a new U21s boss at the helm. Tommy Wright took over from John Schofield, who left in January after a year and a half in charge.

Wright, who was appointed in August, has tons of experience as both a player and manager.

The former Newcastle United and Manchester City goalkeeper won 31 caps for Northern Ireland during a playing career that spanned over 20 years and subsequently has had a lengthy career in coaching and management, most notably as manager of St Johnstone in the Scottish Premiership, with whom he won a Scottish Cup in 2014.

In his first game in charge the U21s lost narrowly to Luxembourg in their opening U21 Euro 2025 qualifier.

The visitors grabbed the only goal of the game early on at Mourneview Park in Lurgan through James Rodrigues.

Northern Ireland created some good chances in the game at the start of September but could not find a way through.

Also in September the U21s were unfortunate to lose out by a goal to nil against a physically strong Ukraine side.

The only goal in the Euro qualifier, which was played at Slovakia’s National Training Centre in Poprad due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, came in the 70th minute through Vitalii Roman.

Northern Ireland enjoyed a welcome victory in their third match in the qualifying series.

The U21s produced a gritty display to defeat Azerbaijan 1-0 in Baku in October.

The only goal of the game at the Qarabagh Stadium was scored by striker Ciaran McGuckin.

Defender Aaron Donnelly was sent off in the 37th minute, triggering a determined performance by his team-mates in what was a pretty scrappy encounter.

Days later the U21s lost out 2-1 to Serbia at home. The Group F encounter at Mourneview Park was a pretty even yet often tetchy affair.

Serbia took the lead on 15 minutes thanks to a fine finish from Vladimir Lucic.

Four minutes after the break Northern Ireland were awarded a penalty when Serbian striker Marko Lazetic elbowed Tommy Fogarty off the ball inside the area. It happened just after Serbian keeper Veljko Ilic had collected a corner and was launching the ball down the field.

McGuckin duly scored from the spot to make it 1-1.

In the 82nd minute Serbia grabbed what turned out to be the winner when Milos Pantovic scored a scrappy goal.

Last month the U21s found England too hot to handle in their final qualifier of the year.

Two goals from Harvey Elliott and another from Tyler Morton were enough to secure a comfortable victory for England at Goodison Park in Liverpool.

Northern Ireland defended superbly for long spells in front of 7,890 fans, but England’s superior attacking prowess told in the end.

Next year’s qualifiers will see the U21s take on Serbia away on 26 March, however they will then have to wait until September for their next competitive outing.

England are scheduled to visit Northern Ireland on 6 September and Ukraine will provide the opposition at home on 10 September.

The U21s are set to complete their campaign in October. They will welcome Azerbaijan to Northern Ireland on 12 October and then jet off to Luxembourg for a game on 15 October.

The 52 countries involved in qualifying are competing for 16 places at the final tournament in Slovakia in 2025.