High-flying Partridge is ready for a Euro battle with English

IRELAND'S latest budding soccer hero is so tiny they could stock his replica jersey in Mothercare. A magnifying glass is as valuable as a tape recorder when interviewing Richie Partridge.

Little Richard looks like the baby brother of Michael J Fox or Frankie Dettori. Forget Niall Quinn or Tony Cascarino, the Dubliner is eye to belly-button with Ray Houghton!

There's not a fingernail of fat on his bronzed frame. It would be difficult to imagine how he could lose an ounce of weight without the assistance of a carpenter's plane.

Here's one Partridge you'd hardly notice in a pear tree.

Yet, for the past 48 hours, this 17-year-old, who could comfortably limbo dance at full stretch, has felt almost as tall as the towering shopping centre in his native Blanchardstown.

Partridge's compelling display in Ireland's European Under-18 Championship victory over Croatia on Sunday suggested Michael Owen could soon have a teenage team-mate in the Liverpool first team.

Built like a jockey, Partridge performed like a thoroughbred.

He served up a cocktail of dizzying tricks along both tramlines. He hummed down both flanks like a jet-propelled arrow, and his goal, a moment of audacious artistry, stole the breath from our lungs.

Taking the ball at full-speed on the left-hand-side angle of the Croatian box, Partridge glanced goalward and saw the keeper, Pletikosa, slightly off his line.

In an instant his foot became a sand-wedge. Without slowing and with the minimum of back swing he scooped the ball over the Croatian in a heavily disguised lob from 25 yards. Magnificent.

His all round performance scaled the heights that even his favourite player, Mark Overmars, would struggle to better.

"It's funny," said manager Brian Kerr, who omitted prolific scorer Ronnie O'Brien to accommodate Partridge: "Richie is probably the smallest player in the tournament. He's the lightest anyway.

"When opposing managers see someone that slight in a team, they think to themselves 'he must have great ability'. They certainly wouldn't have changed their minds if they watched him on Sunday.

"In the modern game pace is everything. Michael Owen, Ronaldo, Ortega, they all have it. With the rule changes the game is made for players who can go by the next man. Richie is like that.

"If a team can produce better attacking play than himself Robbie Keane and Liam George did on Sunday, I have not seen it. If we keep turning out that sort of football, I'll be happy for life."

Which, despite the fact that he had a tooth driven into his upper-lip in Sunday's game, is exactly how Partridge looked yesterday as he lounged by the poolside in a 90 degree Ayia Napa heat-haze.

A permanent smile creased this delightful young man's tanned features as he spoke with alarming maturity and revealing insight.

"I look on my size as an advantage," said Partridge, scorer of four goals in 12 reserve matches for Liverpool last season, "if I was a big defender, I wouldn't fancy having to mark a small lad.

"My speed is good. In my first season at Liverpool (1996/97) I played in the youth team with Michael Owen and I was just about as fast as him. I'll beat him one of these days."

At Liverpool fellow "Blanch" lad Mark Kennedy helped the one time Manchester United fanatic to settle in. Jason McAteer has also been helpful to Partridge, who has two years to run on his Anfield contract.

With inflated pay cheques, divorcing established stars from reality, Partridge's innocence is refreshing.

"Sometimes I can't believe what's happening. I watched the World Cup in 1994 and those lads were my heroes. Back then Jason and Phil Babb were like gods. Now I'm playing with them.

"Really you have to look at it and see how lucky you are."

His family are number one, but Brian Kerr is a close second. Partridge echoes the words of just about every kid who has worked with the former Saint Pat's boss.

"He's remarkable. Over in England everyone is talking about him. They have all heard of him. The confidence he gives you is unbelievable.

"Brian will take you aside and tell you what he wants you to do. And you make sure to take it in, because you know that he is saying it for your benefit."

England have pored over the video of Ireland's performance. Partridge is likely to be the target for some special treatment. The thought of players twice his side scything into this waif is terrifying - yet it hardly phases him.

"I've had to learn how to look after myself in England. There is always a big guy trying to intimidate you. So you learn to battle with them, not to be overawed in any way.

"There is no reason why we should fear England. If we play like against Croatia there is no reason we should lose to them. No reason at all."

The little guy is thinking big. Partridge's ambition is plain to see - with or without a magnifiying glass.

Copyright - Daily Mirror

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