The Republic of Ireland kick off their Under-17 European Championships on Thursday. The tournament is held in Croatia this year, with Ireland in an extremely difficult group featuring Serbia, Germany, and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Ireland kick-off on Thursday against Serbia, with Bosnia to follow on Sunday (both games kicking off at 3.30pm), with the group ending on Wednesday with Ireland facing Germany at 11am. The latter game is live on Eurosport.
Ahead of the start of the tournament, we've picked out three members of the Irish squad to keep an eye on.
Aaron Connolly (Brighton)
Connolly joined Brighton from Mervue United last July, and despite having only turned 17 at the end of January, he made an immediate step-up to Brighton's U-23s. A striker, Connolly made a sensational start once he made his debut with the squad in December, scoring four goals in his fist five games, two of them coming on his debut. That debut came days after a goalscoring debut in the FA Youth Cup. It was his goalscoring record that had caught Brighton's eye: he netted 18 goals in his only season with Mervue in the new U-17 league in Ireland.
In qualifying against Slovakia, Greece, Cyprus, Kazakhstan, Faroe Islands and Andorra, Connolly netted seven goals in six games. In terms of influences, Connolly told Eire Guide that he loved Thierry Henry growing up, and watches Sergio Aguero, Fernando Torres, and Luis Suarez weekly in a bid to pick up a few tips. That'll work for us.
Lee O'Connor (Manchester United)
Connolly's Brighton will be in the Premier League next season, but until they make the step up next season, O'Connor is one of three members of the Irish under-17 squad contracted to a Premier League. (The other two are Gavin Kilkenny of Bournemouth and Stoke's Nathan Collins). O'Connor is listed as a defender in the Irish squad, but can also play in midfield. He joined United last summer, and at the time was the captain of the Irish Under-16s, and had won the U-15 Player of the Year a few months earlier. A native of Waterford, O'Connor was quick to make the step up to United's U-23s also, and if he proves to be as successful at the club as their previous signing for Waterford, he'll have done pretty well.
He certainly doesn't want for confidence, as he told the Waterford News and Star upon signing for United: "I want to play for the first team of Manchester United and, I'll be honest, I wouldn't be making this move unless I felt that I was good enough. I don't think that Manchester United would want me to sign for them either if that's what they didn't want me to do".
O'Connor is one of those named in our 'Irish player to watch at every Premier League club' feature.
Jordan Doherty (Sheffield United)
Doherty will likely be O'Connor's centre-back partner during the tournament, and like both of the others on this list, has been playing regular U23 football in England, in this case with Sheffield United. Doherty made the move to Sheffield having spent eight years at renowned youth club Home Farm, and left for England with the club's Player of the Year gong tucked under his arm. A native of Balbriggan, Doherty is yet too turn 17 - that happens in August - yet has switched between u-18 and u-23 level with United this season. He is one of the hottest prospects to come out of Home Farm in years, and in 2015, he became the first outfield player from the club to represent Ireland at U-15 level in 20 years.
Doherty told Home Farm's website last year that, despite growing up a Manchester United fan, he idolised Steven Gerrard (which isn't as odd as it sounds, Gerrard himself looked up to Bryan Robson) and in the same interview, he showed that he at least has the tastes of a pro footballer: he goes to Nando's once a week.