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Armstrong Oko-Flex strikes late as Ireland U-21s earn credible draw with England

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Captain Joe Hodge gave the Irish an early lead before a pair of strikes from Archie Brown and Dane Scarlett either side of the break handed the England U-20s the advantage in Vrbovec.

Jim Crawford’s side were heading towards a first defeat since November but a late 89th-minute penalty, won and converted – via a rebound – by substitute Armstrong Oko-Flex, secured an impressive result for the Young Boys in Green as they concluded this June double-header on a high.

The U-21 boss will hope the experience his young guns will have gained from the Croatian camp will stand to his side in their huge Euro 2025 qualifying run-in, which gets underway this autumn away to Turkey.

Crawford signalled he would rotate his squad and the Irish boss did just that making eight changes from last week’s win over Croatia, with Irish quartet Killian Cahill, Mark O’Mahony, Alex Murphy and Connor O’Brien earning their first starts at U-21 level.

Just like that victory last Friday, Ireland flew out of the traps again, taking just five minutes to find the lead here. Leyton Orient winger Ollie O’Neill, on his first U-21 start since last summer, showed excellent awareness to lay off the ball to his captain Hodge at the edge of the box.

With a quick look up, the Wolves midfielder picked his spot, smacking the ball into the bottom corner for his second U-21 goal in three games.

Norwich City’s Tony Springett linked up well with Rocco Vata moments later on the left flank, but the Celtic forward’s shot was no trouble for Bristol City’s Jed Ward, not to be confused with a certain set of singing twins from Dublin.

England should have really levelled on 20 minutes as Scarlett worked himself into a great position in front of goal but saw his strike denied by a world class save by Meath man Cahill.

Fulham winger Godo, by far England’s standout player of the opening 45, spun past several green shirts on the stroke of half-time but sent his effort straight at Cahill.

But the Ireland ‘keeper could do nothing seconds before the interval as Gent left-back Brown ran through on goal and hit the net from close range to level the clash – on the same day the Three Lions won the World Cup in 2017.

Having ended the half with a goal, England began the second in the same fashion as, just second after coming into the fray, Anselmo Garcia MacNulty fouled Abu Kamara inside the area. Spurs striker Scarlett made no mistake from the spot as England took the lead on the outskirts of Zagreb.

Ireland had a golden opportunity to level the game with 15 minutes remaining when Brighton’s Andrew Moran got in behind the English backline with a strong run, but his fellow senior cap Sinclair Armstrong was just a fraction away from converting the midfielder’s excellent cross.

But with three minutes left on the clock, substitute Oko-Flex was fouled inside the box and Ireland had a lifeline. The FC Zurich winger’s penalty struck the post but he made no mistake with the rebound to draw Ireland level.

It was no more than Ireland deserved as they finished their trip to this Balkan nation with a positive result and momentum intact. Now, it’s time to make history.

Ireland U-21s: Cahill (Brooks 58); Lawal (Abankwah 85), Murphy (O’Riordan 77), O’Brien (Curtis 59); Roughan (Garcia MacNulty 46), Hodge (Noonan 77), Adeeko (Healy 58), O’Neill, (Armstrong 58) Springett (Oko-Flex 77); Vata (Moran 46); O’Mahony (Emakhu 58).

England U-20s: Ward; Fisher (Esse 62), Brown (Nelson 50), Braybrooke (Casey 63), Hughes (Buck 62), Kamara, Baker-Boaitey (Earthy 50), Hills, Godo (Alves 63), Matos (Bellingham 46); Scarlett.

Ref: Ivan Vuckovic (Croatia).

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