By Owen Morgan
Wales coach Craig Knight has praised his young dragons after fighting their way back from 2-0 down against Montenegro to seal qualification for the European Under-17 Championships finals.
Many teams would have folded under the disappointment of conceding two quick-fire goals in first-half injury time of their deciding group match.
But the Welsh youngsters showed character and maturity beyond their years to secure a decisive draw to ensure they finished top of their Elite Round qualifying group on Tuesday.
Now they will become the first Welsh age group men’s team to line up at a finals tournament since the 1981 UEFA Under-18 Championships held in West Germany.
Knight was understandably bursting with pride as his young charges celebrated on the Dragon Park pitch in Newport after learning the 2-2 draw was enough to take them to the finals which kick-off in Hungary this May.
The Welsh Under-17 squad and staff celebrate their qualification to the European Championship Finals in Hungary. Pic: Owen Morgan.
Asked about his team’s superb second half comeback, Knight said: “I think you’ve got two options, really, you can feel sorry for yourself at the time, or you can feel sorry for yourself at half-four after the game. You’ve still got 45 minutes left. So that was the message.
“To concede the two goals, I mean, one goal is bad enough, but to concede two, I think it was a time for calm heads.
“The first goal after the break was going to be key. Obviously, if it was them it would be dead and buried, but if it was us then the momentum would shift towards us. And that’s how it panned out.
“It was just getting the message to our boys, calming them down, composing them again and then getting them ready for a big 45 minutes, which they delivered again.
“This is one of the best, if not the best job in the world, working with these young talents. I absolutely love it.
“To see them grow over time and then see them perform on a pitch like that, when the pressure is on, when it does mean something, when there are points at stake, it’s 50-50 whether you go to the Euros, and to thrive. It’s just fantastic.”
The pressure was certainly on the home side as they walked out for the second half.
The first 45 minutes had been an even affair with Wales creating the majority of chances, but Montenegro also playing some attractive football in possession.
But the game was turned on its head during four mad minutes of first half injury time.
Montenegro took the lead through Vasilije Adžić in the second minute of stoppage time.
Swansea City’s Kit Margetson pulled off a brilliant save low to his left, but the ball ran into the attacker’s path, and he picked out the top corner to give his side the lead.
Adžić doubled their lead a minute later, getting in behind the home defence on the counterattack before slotting into the bottom corner on the brink of half-time.
The visitors celebrated as if they had won the game as they left the field at half time, but they had not reckoned on the fire in the bellies and ice in the veins of the young dragons.
Within five minutes of the break, Wales were back in the game when Swansea City’s in-form striker Iwan Morgan, slotted home after having been found in the box by his skipper Charlie Crew.
For the remainder of the half, Wales continued to pile on the pressure with Gabriele Biancheri, Freddie Issaka, Alfie Tuck and Morgan again all going close to an equaliser.
With Scotland drawing with Iceland in the other game being played simultaneously on Tuesday afternoon, the live Group B table saw Montenegro, Wales and Scotland all on four points as the match moved into the final five minutes.
Then up popped Dylan Lawlor to produce the goal which would prove decisive for Wales.
Cardiff City’s Dylan Lawlor bellows in delight as he is congratulated by Freddie Issaka after scoring the equaliser against Montenegro. Pic: Owen Morgan.
When Tuck’s cross came in from the left, the Cardiff City centre half showed brilliant improvisation to produce a mid-air back-heeled flick to level the scores on 86 minutes.
When the final whistle blew on the 2-2 result, there was a short, but agonising wait for the score from the Scotland v Iceland game.
When the 0-0 final score was confirmed, the joyful celebrations could begin as Wales were confirmed as Group B winners having beaten Scotland 4-2 and drawn with Iceland in their first two group games.
Knight was delighted with the team’s achievement of becoming the first Welsh men’s Under-17 team to reach the European finals.
“We said that to the players, somebody’s got to be the first group to do it, so why not us? We spoke about that in the week and I’m just delighted it is them because they are great bunch of players and also people,” said Knight.
His comment was backed up by goalkeeper Margetson breaking off from the Welsh players’ celebrations with family and friends after the final whistle to console his opposite number, who lay distraught in his six-yard box.
The Welsh Under-17 team belt out the anthem before their crucial match against Montenegro. Pic: Owen Morgan.
“To see them get that reward for three great performances, I’m delighted for them,” added Knight, who also praised the role of his support staff in the team’s success.
With the likes of youngsters Nathan Broadhead, Jordan James and Luke Harris, having made the step up to the Wales senior squad during the international break, Knight says the qualification success will help other players progress up through the age groups towards Rob Page’s senior national team.
“There’s a study out there, and we did a little bit of research around it, about making that successful transition from youth football to senior international football,” said Knight. “You need about 25 to 35 caps as a youth player.
“The French and Portuguese teams, they’ve got a number of players who play through those youth age groups, who then transition to the senior team so we want that amount of games for our players.
“By actually qualifying for this tournament first and foremost, it’s an extra three games and now we’ve got an extra three games now we’re in the Euros themselves. They’re all massive learning curves.
“We’ll have lots of learnings over there. So, it’s integral I suppose to their development and hopefully we’ll see a couple of them knocking on Pagey’s door soon.”
Knight revealed there had been interaction between the under-17 camp and the first team squad during a hugely successful international break at all levels.
“We stayed in the hotel with the guys this week so we’ve been walking the same corridors within the first team staff with Pagey, and Gunts (Chris Gunter) coming and speaking to the boys last night,” said Knight.
“Two of the boys joined in with them earlier in the week, so that’s what you’ve got here in Wales, it’s such a close-knit family I suppose.
“And in the building we had Luke Harris and Jordan James. I remember them just a couple years ago coming in as young boys, now they’re in the first team squad. We want that for these boys. I’m just delighted, honestly!”
Fittingly, the squad was presented to the Cardiff City Stadium crowd during the half-time interval of Tuesday night’s European Championships victory over Latvia.
Wales Under-17s now go into next Monday’s draw for the 16-team finals tournament, which will take place in Hungary between May 17 and June 2.
The full list of qualifiers is: Hosts: Hungary. Group winners: Croatia, France (holders), Netherlands, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Serbia, Spain, Wales. Best seven runners-up: England, Germany, Italy, Poland, Scotland, Slovenia, Switzerland.
Wales v Montenegro match details:
Wales: Kit Margetson, Rhys Thomas, Luey Giles, Daniel Cox, Dylan Lawlor, Charlie Crew (C), Troy Perrett (George Morgan 81’), Joe Andrews (Alfie Tuck 68’), Iwan Morgan, Gabriele Biancheri (Cody Twose 81’), Freddie Issaka.
GOALS: Iwan Morgan (50’), Dylan Lawlor (86’)
Swansea City’s Iwan Morgan pulls the first goal back against Montenegro at Newport.. Pic: Owen Morgan.
Centre half Dylan Lawlor improvises with a brilliant mid-air back heel to draw Wales level with Montenegro. Pic: Owen Morgan.
YELLOW CARDS: Luey Giles (76’)
Montenegro: Ognjen Milović, Lazar Maraš, Miloš Vračar (C), Marko Perović, Vasilije Adžić, Bojan Damjanović, Zarija Kumburović, Danilo Vukanić (Tomislav Turović 71’), Andrija Camaj, Filip Perović (Marko Tadić 88’).
GOALS: Vasilije Adžić (45+2’, 45+3’)
YELLOW CARDS: Marko Perović (36’)
Cymru U17 Elite Round Squad: Aled THOMAS (Everton), Alfie TUCK (Queens Park Rangers), Brayden CLARKE (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Charlie CREW (Leeds United), Cody TWOSE (Cardiff City), Dan COX (Derby County), Dylan LAWLOR (Cardiff City), Freddie ISSAKA (Plymouth Argyle), Gabriele BIANCHERI (Manchester United), George MORGAN (Everton), Iwan MORGAN (Swansea City), Jacob COOK (Swansea City), Joe ANDREWS (Southampton), Joe HATCH (Plymouth Argyle), Kit MARGETSON (Swansea City), Luey GILES (Cardiff City), Luke ARMSTRONG (Cardiff City), Rhys THOMAS (Manchester City), Sam PARKER (Swansea City), Troy PERRETT (Cardiff City), Lewys BENJAMIN (Cardiff City).