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Preview: Scotland v Northern Ireland U21s

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Click here to view the full Scotland under-21s squad

Nineteen years, three months and five days. Since Scotland last played at a UEFA European U21s Championship finals, confirming their fourth-placed finish with a loss against France in the third-place play-off on 31 May 1996, almost a generation has passed.

In hindsight, that success seems a false dawn now, as they have struggled to get past the qualification stage ever since.

Newly appointed coach Ricky Sbragia will be looking to rectify that and get off to a flying start to the qualifying campaign for the 2017 UEFA European U21 Championship finals in Poland when his team take on Northern Ireland in their opening match at Mourneview Park in Lurgan on Saturday.

Scotland have been drawn into a strong group, being paired with France, Ukraine, Iceland and FYR Macedonia. Iceland already showed their credentials when they easily beat Macedonia 3-0 in the only qualifying match played so far. Scotland need to get out of the blocks equally as quickly if they are to have any realistic chance of making it to the finals.

They will be pinning a good portion of their hopes on in-form Bournemouth winger Ryan Fraser, who is currently impressing on loan at Ipswich and was nominated for the Championship Player of the Month award for August on the back of his strong performances. Fraser has scored three goals in seven appearances for Ipswich so far, including a spectacular winner against Preston, and looks the player most likely to provide the attacking spark for Scotland.

In recent history, the most successful national teams have profited immensely from having blocks of players from the same teams in their ranks. Spain, with Barcelona and Real Madrid, and Germany, with strong blocks of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund players, respectively, have demonstrated just how fruitful knowing some of your teammates can be in terms of integration into the team and already having an understanding for their movement and behaviour on the field.

The time spent with national teams tends to be short, in many ways too short to build up any real attacking fluency or defensive partnerships. Having players in the squad that train and play with each other week in, week out is invaluable, as many of the seemingly telepathic connections that would usually require more time to build are already in place. It must be good, then, to see that kind of familiarity in the current under-21s squad, with goalkeeper Jack Hamilton, defenders Jordan McGhee & Callum Paterson and midfielders Billy King and Sam Nicholson all plying their trade at Hearts.

Other noteworthy players include Hibs forward Jason Cummings, West Ham’s Stephen Hendrie, Ryan Gauld of Sporting Lisbon fame and Dundee United’s John Souttar, who could make his debut for the under-21s.

For Northern Ireland, Michael Duffy of Celtic might be in line to get his fourth cap while Sbragia’s team will be looking to put Kilmarnock’s Conor Brennan, who is likely to start in goal, under early pressure.

Scotland have not played a competitive match against Northern Ireland on an under-21s level yet. However, they previously beat them 3-1 in a friendly in 2010 and will be hoping for a similar outcome on Saturday to secure a good platform from which to continue their campaign.

The players, all toddlers on that day in May 1996, will be hoping to defy history.

 

Jonas Joedecke | YFS Intern
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