Ireland's most capped U21 player ever aiming to go out on a high

Conor Coventry is set to captain the Boys in Green against Israel.

Conor Coventry (file pic).
Conor Coventry (file pic).
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THERE ARE not many players more familiar with U21s football at international level than Conor Coventry.

It was a landmark day for the skipper on 6 June. Coventry made his 25th appearance for Ireland U21s in their penultimate group game, a 3-1 victory over Montenegro.

It meant the young midfielder became the record caps holder at U21 level, taking him one ahead of ex-Arsenal and Coventry forward Graham Barrett.

“I felt massive pride in it,” he tells reporters. “It goes to show I’ve always been fit to play which is a nice thing but to be picked by the manager so many times is nice and something I’m proud of. It’s something I can hold close to me and hopefully, I can use it to push onto the next step.”

But for all his appearances, Coventry has never faced anything more important or comparable to Ireland’s two upcoming games against Israel, as Jim Crawford’s men bid to become the country’s first-ever U21 side to reach a major tournament.

He will hope to rack up more appearanes in the tournament, which takes place in Romania and Georgia next summer, but the two games over the next week could potentially be Coventry’s last at U21 level if his side suffer a defeat in the tie.

“I’d rather be away with Ireland than on holiday, that’s the truth really. It’s a journey that I loved and every camp I’ve come on, I’ve enjoyed and we’ve played some really good football and achieved some really great things together. I’m really proud of it. It could be the last one, so I’m trying extra hard to make sure it is not. 

“We knew at the start of the group it was either win the group or go through a play-off and we would have taken [the latter]. It’s somewhere we wanted to be and everyone is really excited — we’ve put a lot of work into it and now we get the chance to achieve what we want to achieve.”

He continues: “It’s hard to say without sounding cliched but the togetherness of this group is incredible. We’d all rather be in with each other than anywhere else.

“Even Gav Kilkenny is injured and he’s missing it, and he’s gutted. I’ve been speaking to him and he’ll be in with us on Friday. And we’ve had a few who have had tough injuries, they’re all gutted not to be here. 

“The main thing is the togetherness of the group, and I think the personalities, we’ve been down and out a couple of times and we’ve come back and if it happens again in the play-off, we’ve been there, we’ve felt it. I think there is a real never-say-die attitude in the group.”

This evening will not, however, be Coventry’s first time competing in a pivotal two-legged playoff game. The starlet will be hoping to avoid a repeat of last May when his MK Dons side lost 2-1 on aggregate to Wycombe in the League One playoffs.

“The thing I took from it is you don’t have to win it in the first 10 minutes and there are going to be ups and downs in the tie — there might be a stage we’re going through and might be a stage where you think we’re out. So that’s just the nature of it, you have to stay calm and remember that there are 180 minutes rather than 90, and just be patient with it.

“Playoff games are emotional situations, and sometimes during a game, you can think it’s over, in our game in the second leg we played really well and maybe if we’d taken our chances we’d have won and been in the final. So it goes to show the first and second games can be complete opposites, it’s not won over the 90 minutes, and of course, you don’t want to be in a position that’s too hard to come back from.”

Coventry spent all of last season on loan, initially with Peterborough in the Championship and then MK Dons in League One.

This season, however, he has opted to stay with parent club West Ham.

“In my head at the start, I wasn’t too sure if I’d go again or stay and eventually I spoke to the manager and he told me he wanted me to stay and I would get as many minutes as I can.

“For me, as an academy graduate, a West Ham boy, ultimately I wanted to play for West Ham. That’s the decision I took.”

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While Coventry has not been starting regularly from the outset, David Moyes did hand him a Premier League debut off the bench in the 2-0 defeat by Man City, while he has also played three times for the Hammers in the Europa Conference League this season, starting once.

“I’ve been at West Ham since I was a kid. I worked for a long time to be around the first team there so getting the opportunity has been great. It’s what I always wanted really, [I need] to keep working hard and wanting more. 

“I have said it before, I am in a place where I am ready to play, I want to play, I feel ready and hopefully, I can keep showing what I can do in training, take any opportunities I get and hopefully they lead to more.

“I have been around with the first team training for a few years when I was not on loan so I know the quality, it’s tough, there are some top players in there but I feel able for it.”

One individual he knows well and would hope to emulate is recently retired midfielder Mark Noble, who on Thursday was announced as the club’s new sporting director.

“I didn’t know that, he’s come back to the training ground once, he’s come to a couple of the games, his personality is infectious. He came in and had breakfast, normally people would have 10 minutes for breakfast, but all the lads were around him for a good half hour listening to him. He’s had a good influence over the team for the last 15 years, the club as a whole, it’s great the club have him back in that role and hopefully, I will get to see more of him.”

For now though, the 22-year-old is focused on the immediate task at hand.

“It’s not many experiences you get growing up, playing in a two-legged game, especially not one where we know what’s at stake, one, that our underage careers could be over and, two, a place at the Euros.

“It’s going to be a big occasion and a tough one, but we are experienced as a group, we know each other well — it’s just the same as always, we will rise to the occasion.”

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Paul Fennessy

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