James Milner and Theo Walcott were on target as England hit three second half strikes to beat Ireland.
England 3-0 Republic of Ireland
2009 UEFA European Under-21 Championship Qualifier
7.45pm, Tuesday 5 February 2008
St.Mary's Stadium, Southampton FC
Live on Sky Sports
James Milner scored a brace in his record 36th Under-21 appearance to put England on the way to victory over Ireland.
But it was Theo Walcott who stole the limelight with his classy strike in front of his former Southampton faithful to all but secure their place in the play-offs for next summer’s UEFA European Under-21 Championship.
England, and Walcott in particular, endured a difficult first half, but their pace and power proved the difference in the second half as Milner struck on the hour before adding a second eight minutes later, with Walcott sealing the result near the end to give Stuart Pearce’s men a well-earned, but by no means easy, three points.
At the end of a windy day on the south coast, the players were greeted onto the pitch by a torrential downpour, which made the surface slippery underfoot until it began to ease 15 minutes into the action.
By this time, England had enjoyed some decent possession, but their final ball into the danger-zone was thwarted by the sturdy looking Irish leaving Walcott a little isolated.
Aaron Lennon and Milner were showing good signs on the wings for England, providing a positive attacking option, while Championship trio Owen Garvan, Anthony Stokes and Billy Clarke were getting into some dangerous positions for Ireland.
Just after the half hour mark, the Three Lions had a real chance to open the scoring. Milner cut in from the left and drove at Darren Randolph’s goal from the corner of the area. The Charlton keeper had trouble dealing with it, only managing to parry away. Walcott was quick to react, but needed to turn sharply to get the shot on target, but could only manage to hit the side netting.
The silky skills and pirouette of Ipswich Town midfielder Garvan on the edge of the box opened up a sight on Joe Hart’s goal, but his powerful left foot strike was met by Steven Taylor’s block.
In the closing moments of the half Pearce’s side had three opportunities at goal. Lennon latched onto a loose ball in a central position 30-yards out before unleashing a fierce shot which arrowed narrowly wide of the goal, and also flashed one wide of the other post with the final kick of the half after being released by Mark Noble. Between which, Milner had another pop from range, but this time it was held by Randolph.
With the puddles now all but gone, Ireland had the first foray forward after the turnaround, with Garvan again looking lively as he got the better or Milner and Joe Mattock on the right wing. His cross picked out Sunderland forward Anthony Stokes 18-yards from goal, but his shot was snuffed out by England’s rugged defensive pairing.
That started a somewhat fast-paced 15 minutes in which either side could have found the back of the net. While England had the majority of openings, it was the Irish who had the more clear cut. After a shout for handball inside the Ireland box, the England players stood still as the visitors broke away. Wolves forward Andy Keogh raced clear but his shot was dealt with well by Hart.
At the other end, David Wheater almost volleyed home from a Milner cross, but his tidy shot went wide, then Mattock squared the ball from the bye-line for Walcott and his shot was blocked on the line.
It was two accurate strikes from Milner that finally separated the sides to give England the three points they wanted. While his first may have been fortunate, a driven cross from the right that sneaked inside Randolph’s far post, his second was a peach. As space opened up for him 20-yards from goal he drove low across the turf and the ball struck the foot of the post and rolled over the line.
But with eleven minutes remaining, it was the moment the Southampton fans had been waiting for. Walcott collected a pass from Huddlestone in the left hand channel and as he ran forward he opened up his body and curled the ball into the far corner of the net, beyond the despairing dive of Randolph, before soaking up the applause.
Ireland were not giving up and their intricate passing almost carved out a couple of chances, the best of which forced a clawing save from Hart at his near post.
The night, though, belonged to England and Southampton as Pearce’s men moved one step closer to Sweden. Walcott received a standing ovation when he went off with five minutes to go as a current Saint, Andrew Surman, was handed his third cap.
1 Joe Hart (Manchester City), 2 Craig Gardner (Aston Villa), 3 Joe Mattock (Leicester City), 4 Mark Noble (West Ham United) (17 Andrew Surman (Southampton), 86), 5 Steven Taylor (c) (Newcastle United), 6 David Wheater (Middlesbrough), 7 James Milner (Newcastle United), 8 Tom Huddlestone (Tottenham Hotspur) (15 Cameron Jerome (Birmingham City), 79), 9 Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur), 10 Fabrice Muamba (Birmingham City), 11 Theo Walcott (Arsenal) (14 Adam Johnson (Middlesbrough), 86)
Subs not used 13 Joe Lewis (Peterborough United), 12 Michael Mancienne (QPR), 16 Luke Moore (Aston Villa), 18 Jamie O'Hara (Tottenham Hotspur)
Bookings Fabrice Muamba 19
Coach Stuart Pearce
Goals: James Milner 60, 68, Theo Walcott 78
Republic of Ireland
1 Darren Randolph (Charlton Athletic), 2 Eddie Nolan (Blackburn Rovers), 3 Stephen O’Halloran (Southampton), 4 Joe O’Cearuill (Barnet), 5 Darren O’Dea (c) (Celtic), 6 Stephen Quinn (Sheffield United) (13 Ian Morris, 83), 7 Owen Garvan (Ipswich Town), 8 John-Joe O’Toole (Watford), 9 Andy Keogh (Wolverhampton Wanderers), 10 Anthony Stokes (Sunderland) (14 Jim O’Brien (Celtic), 87), 11 Billy Clarke (Ipswich Town) (18 Adam Rooney (Chesterfield), 65)
Subs not used 16 Shane Supple (Ipswich Town), 12 Richard Keogh (Bristol City), 15 Darren Dennehy (Everton), 17 Shane McFaul
Bookings Owen Garvan 63
Coach Sean McCaffrey
Referee Jouni Hyytia (Finland)
Assistants Tiejo Kotinurmi and Jouko Ikonen (Finland)
Fourth Official Mattias Gestranius (Finland)