Branch's field day

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The Independent Online

England Under-16 3

Romania Under-16 2

Michael Branch scored a 23-minute hat-trick yesterday as England's Under-16 team narrowly qualified for the European Championship finals.

Branch, a pupil at the FA National School and on the books at Everton, clinched a dramatic 3-2 victory over Romania in the qualifying round in Athens, Greece.

The impressive Romanians had come back from two goals down when Branch struck his third with four minutes remaining in the 80-minute match.

England, who beat Greece 4-0 on Sunday, started brightly but lost John Curtis, their captain, for 15 minutes while he had six stitches inserted in a head injury.

Romania hit the post while he was off but, after the break, England regrouped and went ahead when Branch headed in at the far post after Matthew Wicks had flicked on Stuart Brightwell's 53rd-minute corner.

Luke Staton, of Blackburn Rovers, then won two tackles to feed Branch for his second just after the hour. But Cosmin Barcauan pulled one back within minutes before Marius Iordache scored from 25 yards to put Romania level.

England rallied and Jody Morris, of Chelsea, and Tottenham's Mark Gower combined to set up Branch for his third.

England, who included 10 National School players in their starting line- up, now go to Belguim in April for the 16-team European Championships. A top-four finish would earn them a place in the World Championships in Ecuador in August.

ENGLAND U-16 (4-5-1): Heritage (Sheffield Utd & FA National School); Dickman, Curtis, (both Manchester Utd & FANS), Wicks (Arsenal and FANS), Crowe (Arsenal and Columbus Boys School, Bexley Heath); Brightwell (Manchester Utd and FANS), Gower (Tottenham and FANS), Morris, (Chelsea and FANS), Staton (Blackburn and FANS), Wright (Leeds and FANS); Branch (Everton and FANS). Substitutes: Smith (Crewe and FANS) for Brightwell, 45. Clement (Chelsea and FANS) for Wright, 70. Substitutes not used: Sopp (Leyton Orient), Ormerod (Middlesbrough and Warsett School, Saltburn-by-Sea), O'Connor (Wimbledon).