Andrew Omobamidele is convinced the Republic of Ireland have taken a significant step forward despite seeing their hopes of World Cup qualification all but ended.
The 19-year-old Norwich defender’s full debut against Serbia on Tuesday evening ended in a 1-1 draw in another dramatic conclusion after Cristiano Ronaldo had snatched a famous victory from Ireland’s grasp at the death in Portugal and Shane Duffy had rescued a first point of the campaign against Azerbaijan with a late equaliser.
A return of two points from the first five Group A fixtures is way below their target and leaves them 11 points adrift of the Portuguese and nine shy of the Serbs with only one automatic place up for grabs, but Omobamidele is confident Stephen Kenny’s young side has put down a marker.
He said: “It’s a huge lift. We didn’t win but it’s a huge step.
“We showed that we can go toe-to-toe with these nations, as you saw in Portugal with players like Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, all these world-class boys, and we went toe-to-toe with them for 85 minutes.
“Obviously it was unfortunate at the end, but it’s a huge step in the right direction.”
Ireland are now without a competitive victory in 16 attempts – 12 of them under Kenny’ charge – but the emergence of a new generation of players is a source for optimism with the manager insisting his focus was always on Euro 2024 rather than the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final he inherited from predecessor Mick McCarthy or the current campaign.
Omobamidele and fellow 19-year-old Gavin Bazunu, who made a string of fine saves to deny Aleksandar Mitrovic in particular, were outstanding against Serbia, while 20-year-old striker Adam Idah came of age in three games in which seven of the 20 men who took to the pitch were aged 22 or under.
For the Norwich defender, who played a key role in the Canaries’ Sky Bet Championship title drive at the end of last season, a first cap as a substitute and a maiden start on Tuesday represent the stuff of dreams.
Omobamidele, who was told he was starting against Serbia during Monday’s team meeting, said: “At first, you don’t take it in. Then we walked out of the meeting and I went up to my room and it kind of sank in there.
“You can never get your first start in an Irish jersey back, so before the game, I wanted to perform.
“It was my first time starting and playing in the Aviva and the crowd was just… I’ve never experienced anything like that in my whole footballing career, so that’s probably the highlight of my career so far.”
It might have been an even bigger night for Omobamidele had goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic not managed to keep out his raking shot in the third minute of stoppage-time as Ireland pushed for a late winner after Nikola Milenkovic’s own goal had cancelled out Sergej Milinkovic-Savic’s first-half header.
He said with a smile: “I was taking my jersey off already straight away after it left my boot.
“To be fair to the keeper, he pulled off a good save, but I was ready to jump into the crowd.”
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