For much of the match it looked as though the Irish youngsters, who had to come from behind to wipe out Malcolm Licari's 27th-minute strike with a Daryl Clare equaliser four minutes later, would be held to an embarrassing draw as the match drifted into five minutes of injury time.
The luckless Maltese, having already suffered defeats by Croatia and Macedonia, were pleading for the final whistle when the Republic's substitute, Tony Folan, sent over a last-gasp corner from the right. Colin Hawkins headed the ball back into the goalmouth and Worrell scrambled it home.
More than 4,000 fans, who had taken the day off work to pack tiny Lamberton Park in the County Wicklow fishing port, went wild as the Irish clinched a victory they just about deserved. But the result was tough luck on Malta, who battled admirably and reduced their hosts to a mediocre standard for much of the game.
Malta's goalkeeper, Saviour Darmanin, lived up to his name with a string of brilliant saves from Alan Mahon, Kevin Kilbane and Alan Lee, who also hit a post with a header. Midway through the first half, Licari stunned the Irish by outpacing Hawkins through the middle to connect with William Camenzuli's through-pass and fire Malta into the lead.
However, Ireland immediately equalised, Clare heading home from Mahon's cross. The rest of the match was then a frustrating one for the Republic as Darmanin pulled off more good saves from Kilbane, Lee and Steve McPhail.
The Republic's performance bore no relation to the valiant 2-2 draw against Croatia last month, when they were reduced to 10 men for the second half. But, on this occasion, Worrell's late winner was enough to tip the balance and leave the shattered Maltese flat out in despair.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND UNDER-21: O'Reilly (West Ham), Boxall (Brentford), Ryan (Millwall), Morgan (St Patrick's Athletic), Hawkins (St Patrick's Athletic), Worrell (Blackburn Rovers), Inman (Peterborough Utd), Clare (Grimsby Town), Lee (Aston Villa), Mahon (Tranmere Rovers), Kilbane (West Bromwich Albion). Substitutes: Folan (Brentford) for Inman, 77; McPhail (Leeds Utd) for Mahon, 57.
Malta Under-21: Darmanin; Camenzuli, A Galea, Scicluno, Aquilina, Grima, Holland, Ciantar (Azzapardi, 52), Licari, Nuwoko (Mamo, 74), Mallia.
Referee: L Gadosi (Slovakia).Reuse content