Tom Mohan has described guiding the Republic of Ireland to qualification for the UEFA U17 Championships as the most satisfying moment of his coaching career ahead of travelling to Bulgaria for Thursday’s draw for the tournament.
The Young Boys in Green secured a first appearance at the Championships since 2008 by finishing runners-up in their Elite Qualifying Round in Poland last week despite going down to a 1-0 defeat to the hosts in their last outing.
However, an opening day draw with Greece followed up by an impressive display against Belarus was enough to see Mohan’s side qualify as one of the best runners-up and join 15 other nations in the draw taking place in Pomorie for the expanded Championships which run from May 6 to 22.
“It definitely was a proud moment,” Mohan told Back Page Football.
“When you’re managing the team there is a lot more onus on you and a lot more pressure so no doubt about it was a magic moment to qualify and get the players through to a European finals where we will be playing against the cream of Europe.
“The likes of Spain, The Netherlands, France and Russia will be there and that’s where the players want to be at this level and testing themselves in that sort of company.”
Two wins over Gibraltar and The Faroe Islands and a draw with Scotland saw the Irish top their Qualifying Round group last September to set up the final six-day tournament in Poland.
Going into the final day, the Young Boys in Green knew that only a heavy defeat would see them eliminated on goal difference but Mohan revealed that nerves were still somewhat frayed as the other game between Belarus and Greece was still being played, eventually finishing 0-0.
“Once we knew that we didn’t suffer a heavy defeat ourselves then we were confident that the other result would not have that big an impact but I suppose you can never be sure until the final whistle goes,” said the 41-year-old from Aughadrumsee in County Fermanagh.
“With seven or eight minutes of injury time in the other game you never know what might happen but we got there.”
Despite having to do without some key players in the form of the injured trio of Jake Doyle-Hayes, Steven Kinsella and Anthony Scully, former League of Ireland stalwart Mohan paid tribute to the application and dedication of the 18 youngsters who travelled to eastern Europe.
Six of the squad were home-based players including Ringmahon Rangers stopper Caoimhin Kelleher who pulled off a string of crucial saves in the final game against the hosts that ensured the Irish side held onto second spot in the group.
Lucan United striker Jamie Aherne bagged a brace in a 3-1 win over Belarus adding to a strike by Josh Barrett two days after the Reading striker had rounded off a superb two-goal comeback against Greece from the penalty spot to salvage a draw against the eventual group winners.
“It’s a dream for them kids to wear an Ireland jersey and to be successful and get to a finals of a major competition is really great for them,” said Mohan, who was part of Sean McCaffrey’s coaching set-up when the Republic of Ireland last competed in the UEFA U17 Championships in Turkey seven years ago.
“It is also testament to the work of everyone involved in the development of football in the country from the grassroots up.”
Mohan spent 11 seasons plying his trade in the League of Ireland with Derry City and Finn Harps before a short spell with Longford Town was curtailed by injury in 2005.
By then the combative midfielder had already begun climbing the coaching ladder completing his Level 1 coaching badge and UEFA ‘B’ Licence before hanging up his boots.
He then went on to do his UEFA ‘A’ Licence while last year he undertook his UEFA Pro Licence.
He took over the reins of the U17 team from John Morling in 2012 having being part of the international underage set-up since 2007.
Mohan is well aware of the task at hand when competition gets underway in Bulgaria in May but says his players will not be overawed when they potentially go up against the likes of reigning champions England as well as past winners France, Spain, Russia, the Netherlands and Germany.
“At the end of the day we have some very good and extremely talented players in our squad too and it will be a great occasion for them to go out and prove how good they are and challenge themselves against top players,” added the former Northern Ireland Schoolboys international.
“We are not just going to be happy to turn up and be there, we want to compete and do our best against the best.
“In terms of expectation, we cannot look beyond our first game and whoever we get we are going to have to do a lot of preparation and work to ensure we are ready for the challenge.”