Ryan Donnelly admits scoring the winner for Northern Ireland in their 2023 UEFA U17 qualifier against Malta back in October was without question the best moment of his life.
The 16-year-old’s decisive goal in the 87th minute not only secured a crucial three points for Gerard Lyttle’s side, but it also ultimately guaranteed their place in the elite stages of the competition which are to be played later this month.
After drawing 1-1 with the Czech Republic in their opening group game and losing 3-0 to Scotland in their second, Northern Ireland knew they had to defeat hosts Malta to stand any chance of qualifying for the next phase.
'We realise how tough these games are going to be, but we are a very close group, there is a real bond between us and we all know each other really well'
“We knew we had to win the last game,” said Donnelly, who has now won seven caps for his country at U17 level. “We went a goal down just before the break and Gerard told us to go out in the second half and show what we could do.
“Calum (Moreland) got us back in the game when he headed the equaliser then I scored the winner near the end which was surreal and definitely the best moment of life. I was just buzzing afterwards.”
Northern Ireland’s victory over Malta meant they finished third in the table behind Scotland and the Czech Republic eventually progressing to the elite round as one of the four best third-placed teams in the qualifying stages.
U17 skipper Donnelly began his footballing career with Armagh City before linking up with Dixie Robinson’s youth squad at Dungannon Swifts four years ago.
However, as well as being part of the excellent youth set-up at the Stangmore Park, the Keady native is also a member of the highly successful Irish FA JD Academy.
“To get into the Academy I had to go on trial with about 100 other boys over a five-week period before thankfully being selected.
“It really is a fantastic environment to be in,” he said. “We go to school from 9-3pm Monday to Friday, then in the afternoons we have gym work and training and then we are able to go home at the weekends.
“We also learn a lot of life skills like budgeting, cooking etc which will prepare us for life after the academy. It has definitely improved me not only as a player but as a person as well.”
The elite round games, which are set to be held between 22-28 March, sees Northern Ireland grouped with England, hosts the Netherlands (both former winners of the competition), and Denmark who were runners-up in 1994.
“In preparation for the games we will be having training camps with the coaches closer to the tournament. Of course, we realise how tough these games are going to be, but we are a very close group, there is a real bond between us and we all know each other really well.
“Quite a few of us work and live together at the academy and I think that will help us, and you never know we could maybe cause a shock or two, it just all depends how the teams perform on the day.”