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By ESPN Staff

Young Lions secure Euro play-off place

England U21s 3-0 Republic of Ireland U21s

Theo Walcott scored on his return to St Mary's as England Under-21s virtually assured themselves of a play-off to reach the European Championships in 2009.

Walcott, who left Southampton for Arsenal two years ago, netted with 12 minutes remaining to add gloss to a hard-fought victory over their Irish counterparts.

James Milner had set up the opener, which flew in off Stephen O'Halloran, before scoring the second himself with a precise finish off the post.

Stuart Pearce's youngsters top their qualifying group on their road to the finals in Sweden with 19 points.

• Walcott plays down hype

Pearce is now part of Fabio Capello's backroom staff and gives his recommendations to the new boss, and Franco Baldini was also in the stands to cast an eye on the likes of Walcott and Aaron Lennon.

However, teeming rain prior to kick-off made for tricky conditions, particularly a boggy patch down the middle of the half England were defending first.

The hosts tried to use the pace of Lennon and Walcott down the flanks but neither got an early run at the Irish defence.

In fact, it was right-back Craig Gardner who was the first to get behind the visitors, on the right, but Owen Garvan closed in quickly.

It was a frustrating opening in which David Wheater was booked for needlessly obstructing a quick free-kick.

It was not until midway through the opening period that England built any sort of momentum, with Lennon whipping in his first cross of the match in the 25th minute.

He tried again a couple of minutes later after exchanging passes with Tom Huddlestone, with the referee waving play on when the effort struck Stephen O'Halloran and the hosts claimed a penalty.

There was another shout when Mark Noble challenged John-Joe O'Toole but Jouni Hyytia turned it down.

Lennon headed wide from Milner's cross as Pearce's men looked to impose themselves on the game.

Their first proper chance came after 33 minutes when Noble stole the ball off Stephen Quinn and spread it wide to Milner. The Newcastle midfielder cut inside and saw his shot palmed away, with Walcott firing the rebound over.

At the other end, Garvan danced into the penalty area with quick footwork and it required skipper Steven Taylor to block the shot.

But it was England who finished the half stronger, with Wheater heading over from a corner and Walcott dragging an effort off target when he ran at Ireland with pace.

Lennon fired wide from the edge of the area just before the break and, after his slow start, looked England's most likely threat. Milner shot from a similar distance and forced Darren Randolph to save.

The visitors had the first chance of the second period, in the 51st minute.

With England appealing for another handball in their opposition's box, Garvan played Andrew Keogh over the top but Joe Hart was able to save the finish.

Wheater almost made Keogh rue his miss, volleying just wide when he got on the end of Huddlestone's free-kick.

Walcott had an effort bravely blocked on the line by Darren O'Dea after Joe Mattock had been played behind the defence by Noble.

But Walcott helped set up the opener in the 59th minute.

He laid the ball back for Milner whose effort across the face of the goal was diverted into his own goal by O'Halloran. It was cruel luck on the youngster who is on loan at Southampton.

After battling for an hour, a frustrated Garvan took it out on Walcott with a sliding tackle and was booked.

Milner scored the second himself, collecting the ball off Fabrice Muamba 25 yards out and crashing his low finish in off the post.

Walcott got his goal with 12 minutes remaining, picking the ball up on the left, cutting inside and unleashing his finish into the far corner. He was replaced with five minutes remaining to a standing ovation.

  • Walcott plays down hype

    England Under-21 forward Theo Walcott scored on his return to St Mary's and insisted he would continue to ignore the hype surrounding his development since leaving Southampton.

    Walcott's goal against Republic of Ireland virtually assured Stuart Pearce's youngsters of a play-off to reach the 2009 European Championships in Sweden.

    It took Walcott's under-21 tally to five goals, one more than he has managed for Arsenal - but he is determined to ignore suggestions he is not playing enough for the club he signed for two years ago.

    'I don't pay any attention to the criticism about me,' he said on Sky Sports. 'The only ones I listen to are my family and close friends.

    'I just try to get on with football and try to perform every game.'

    Walcott added the gloss on a hard-fought victory over the visitors, despite the 3-0 scoreline.

    It was not until Aaron Lennon got into the game midway through the first half that England got any momentum going.

    Even so, James Milner was the only one to force a save from Irish goalkeeper Darren Randolph, with Lennon, Walcott and David Wheater going off target.

    In fact, it was the visitors who had the best chance before the scoring started but Andrew Keogh's shot was saved by Joe Hart when he raced through.

    'Credit to our goalkeeper,' said Pearce. 'He says 'stand up and try to beat me'.'

    The deadlock was broken just before the hour mark when Milner's cross flew in off Stephen O'Halloran, who is on loan at Southampton.

    Milner added the second himself with a precise finish off the post before Walcott cut in and added the third.

    'The fans have been brilliant since I moved and when I was here they showed great support,' Walcott added.

    'The main thing was the result. We just wanted to keep a clean sheet we battled and got the result.'

    Pearce feels Walcott's pace can trouble any defence, forming part of his dangerous attack at under-21 level.

    'Pace is the one thing defenders fear the most,' he said.

    'But it is not about the goal. He will be judged by me over how he does over 90 minutes.

    'Up front on your own is a difficult position and a fantastic part of his education.

    'He's started every match for me in the campaign, at Arsenal he's making more starts, he just has to keep learning the game.'

    Pearce added: 'With the pace we have up top we have a chance against anybody.

    'We've found it a little bit more difficult at home because we are better on the counter. People get men behind the ball.

    'Sometimes you need to play for an hour for the game to open up. All of a sudden the cutting edge was there.'

    Franco Baldini from Fabio Capello's backroom staff introduced himself to England's youngsters before the game, adding an incentive to perform.

    'They know there is a link,' said Pearce, who himself is on Capello's staff. 'If he (Capello) was going to send a message it was to win the game.'

    Portugal can still win the group with a win against Pearce's men but 19 points should be enough for one of the best runners-up places in the play-offs.

    'We're in the play-off with a game to spare,' Pearce declared.