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Nov 13, 2012

England Under-21s end 2012 on a high

Connor Wickham and Thomas Ince reflect on a decent performance against rivals Northern Ireland

England Under-21s extended their winning streak to six games with a comfortable victory over Northern Ireland at Bloomfield Road.

Stuart Pearce's Young Lions, playing for the first time since last month's controversial 1-0 win in Serbia and with a much-changed side, took a deserved lead just before the interval when Connor Wickham headed home Jordan Henderson's free-kick.

Wickham had already gone close on a few occasions, hitting the bar with one shot, and England continued to boss things after the break, with their dominance being rewarded in the 77th minute when substitute Benik Afobe earned and converted a penalty.

Pearce will have been pleased to get back to playing football after the trouble that flared at the Euro 2013 play-off second leg between his team and Serbia in Krusevac on October 16 and the fall-out that has followed.

After Wickham's stoppage-time goal in that game, which saw the visitors advance to next summer's finals in Israel 2-0 on aggregate, clashes broke out between players and staff of both teams, while there was also alleged racist abuse from the stands towards England players and missiles thrown.

The Serbian and English Football Associations have subsequently been charged over the behaviour of their players and the former for the alleged racist chanting by UEFA, whose control and disciplinary body will convene on November 22 to deal with the case.

The only men who had been in the first XI for that match to keep their places this evening were captain Henderson, Adam Smith and - playing at the home of his club Blackpool - Tom Ince as Pearce made the most of the opportunity to experiment, with under-21 debutants Jack Robinson and Nick Powell among those coming into the starting line-up. Wickham led the line from the start after his match-winning substitute appearance last time out, and the striker was soon making a nuisance of himself.

He brought a save out of visiting goalkeeper Conor Devlin with a shot in the eighth minute, and after Andros Townsend had an effort tipped behind, Wickham saw his header from the resulting corner deflect over.

Three minutes later the Sunderland frontman came even closer to scoring, meeting Robinson's cut-back with a strike that came back off the bar.

Devlin got himself in the way when Wickham tried to hook the ball in from close range just after the half hour mark and when he went to nod in the corner which followed, he sustained an injury that saw him come off for treatment.

The knock - a head injury for which he received four stitches - was certainly not about to stop the 19-year-old, though.

After Ince fired in a low shot at the end of a mazy dribble which Devlin parried and then had appeals that he was pulled back in the box waved away, Wickham returned to the action.

And following a brief scare at the other end where Josh Magennis failed to finish a loose ball in the England box, the former Ipswich striker made the breakthrough as he rose to crash home a header from Henderson's delivery.

It was Wickham's third goal in his last four England Under-21 internationals, something his club manager Martin O'Neill - for whom he has made just one substitute appearance so far this term - might be advised to take note of given Sunderland's recent struggles to hit the back of the net.

The one-way traffic continued after the break, with Powell firing too high, Devlin saving a Robinson shot with his legs and Ince scooping the ball over from a good position.

Pearce made a raft of substitutions, with Harry Maguire, Will Hughes and Afobe among those coming on to make their under-21 bows.

And after Ince and Tom Lees had had shots blocked, Afobe was brought down by the out-rushing Devlin in the area and the striker, who plays for Bolton on loan from Arsenal, stepped up to convert the penalty.

Nathaniel Chalobah and Liam Moore were the final two men to be given debuts from the bench in the remaining time as England cruised to victory.

Information from the Press Association was used in this report.

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