England 2-0 Northern Ireland
Connor Wickham and Benik Afobe on target as England U21s beat Northern Ireland
by Jamie Bradbury
Stuart Pearce’s Young Lions equalled a 21-year record as they registered their sixth win on the spin in Blackpool on Tuesday night.
England’s Under-21s beat Northern Ireland 2-0 thanks to goals from Connor Wickham and a Benik Afobe penalty and completed their games in 2012 with a 100 percent record.
Not only that, in a year that saw them seal qualification for their fourth European Championship in succession, England also kept clean sheets in all six matches.
And although it took until the stroke of half-time to take the lead, victory never looked in doubt as Pearce handed debuts to seven players.
Liverpool defender Jack Robinson and Manchester United Nick Powell earned their maiden caps at Under-21s level, while there were first starts for Leeds United’s Tom Lees and Tottenham’s Andros Townsend.
Liam Moore, Harry Maguire, Nat Chalobah, Will Hughes and Afobe all made their bows in the second half.
England were keen to follow up their hard-fought win over Serbia in last month's play-off and after Wickham had seen an early shot saved by Conor Devlin, Townsend also tried his luck but saw his 18-yard strike stopped by the Cliftonville ‘keeper.
Middlesbrough loanee Josh McEachran, who was playing in his first game since February, was given the opportunity to impress Pearce in the play-maker role.
And he brought with him the form that has helped his club reached the upper echelons of the Championship, regularly getting on the ball and looking to create in front of the England defence.
It was the 19-year-old’s slide-rule pass in behind Irish full-back Lee Hodson that set Robinson on his way. The Reds youngster squared for Wickham but the Sunderland man sent his shot crashing against the bar.
Wickham was again denied by another solid piece of goalkeeping from Devlin, before he was forced off for eight minutes to get four stitches in a wound following a clash of heads with Andre Wisdom.
While absent, Tom Ince, playing in front of his home crowd, moved into a more central and had two good chances to open the scoring. His first was dealt with well by Devlin at full stretch, then his second was under pressure from Tom Flanagan inside the box.
Ince went down, while managing to get a shot away, and though he appealed for a penalty, referee John Beaton was not interested.
Wickham, though, was back on the pitch just before half-time and finally put England in front. After his match-winner in injury time in Serbia a month ago, he netted for the second game in succession, heading home inside the six-yard box from Jordan Henderson’s free-kick.
England continued their search for goals in the second half, Ince in particular looking to give the 8,000 crowd something to cheer.
He blazed one chance over after some poor defending from the Irish, but was extremely unlucky to see his mazy dribble into the box, which ended with a close-range shot, kept out by Devlin.
But when substitute Afobe burst through on goal, Devlin was out quickly, but not quick enough. It was his only error of an otherwise flawless game hauling the Bolton Wanderers man to the ground and this time the Scottish referee pointed to the spot.
Captain Henderson picked up the ball ready to take the spot-kick, but caved into the pleas of the debutant who made sure with an emphatic finish from 12 yards.
Josh Carson almost spoilt the home side’s impressive defensive record in stoppage time, but failed to connect well with a header at the far post, and England wrapped up 2012 with another win and another clean sheet.
1 Ben Amos (13 Jason Steele, 46), 2 Adam Smith (12 Nathaniel Clyne, 60), 3 Jack Robinson (14 Liam Moore, 83), 4 Josh McEachran (17 Will Hughes, 65), 5 Andre Wisdom (15 Harry Maguire, 60), 6 Tom Lees, 7 Tom Ince (18 Martyn Waghorn, 76), 8 Jordan Henderson (c) (16 Nat Chalobah, 76), 9 Connor Wickham, 10 Nick Powell, 11 Andros Townsend (19 Benik Afobe, 60)
Sub not used:
20 Sam Johnstone
: Stuart Pearce
Connor Wickham 45, Benik Afobe (p) 75