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'It would be my greatest achievement as a coach, a manager and a player'

Jim Crawford’s Ireland side are 90 minutes away from an unprecedented Euros qualification.

Ireland U21s manager Jim Crawford pictured in Israel on Monday.
Ireland U21s manager Jim Crawford pictured in Israel on Monday.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

GAMES AT UNDERAGE level as important as the one in Tel Aviv later today do not come around too often.

In fact, for Ireland U21s, this is genuinely unprecedented territory, having never qualified for a major tournament nor reached the playoffs.

After a closely fought 1-1 draw with Israel at Tallaght Stadium on Friday, both sides will see this encounter (kick-off: 6.15pm Irish time, live on the RTÉ player) as a good chance to book their ticket for next year’s event in Romania and Georgia.

It won’t be an easy task for Ireland, however. Several players were ruled out through injury in the build-up to the first leg, while the goalscorer on Friday, Evan Ferguson, has picked up an knock on his ankle and consequently may not start this evening.

Israel, meanwhile, are likely to be even stronger compared with last week. In addition to having the home advantage, a couple of extra players have been brought down from the senior squad in an attempt to boost their chances of progression.

“I think it’s a compliment to our performance on Friday that they needed the senior team players,” Jim Crawford said at Monday’s pre-match press conference.

“The players that they are bringing down have played in the campaign already so we are aware of them. We prepared on the build-up to the window that these players were going to play.

“I mentioned them in certain interviews before. They’ve got the boy Doron Leidner who is a left back and Eden Kartsev, the midfielder. They have Liel Abada too. They have come down and strengthened their team for the game.

“But it doesn’t faze us. It is in the back of my mind that it is a compliment with their manager needing to dip into the senior team.

“I don’t think it will change them too much tactically. It will strengthen them but they are the players we expected to come in for the first leg. When we found out they weren’t, we then had to work on other players in terms of research and that was a surprise for us. So we know everything about Karzev, Leidner and Abada, who will be called down.” 

The Israel senior team, who have already secured promotion to League A having topped their group, had been due to face Russia in the Nations League today. But that match was cancelled, with Valery Karpin’s side currently banned from international football owing to the war in Ukraine. Instead, Israel have arranged a friendly away to Malta, a relatively unimportant fixture, thereby freeing up the promising young players in question to compete at Bloomfield Stadium this evening.

Crawford is still remaining optimistic, though, and says his side are capable of raising their game from Friday to counteract Israel’s new arrivals. They will likely need to be more clinical, however, if they are to earn a historic win.

“We got into the final third on many occasions where we didn’t get that final action right whether it was a cross or that run you need into the box, so it’s little things like that.

“That’s no slight on the performance, it’s just that I think the frame of mind we have the players in now is that we can always be better no matter what the performance was. If it’s an 8/10, let’s make it a 9/10. So that’s our approach now since the very start of the campaign and it’s not going to change now because it’s the playoffs. Yeah, it was a good performance on Friday. We played well, and we created chances, which is always encouraging. Can it be better? Of course, it can.

“We spoke about it. The players identified numerous things where we said: ‘Let’s put that right now for this game on Tuesday.”

One other factor that could potentially work in Israel’s favour is the heat, with a temperature of around 28 degrees expected in Tel Aviv.

However, Irish skipper Conor Coventry played down the significance of the weather.

“It’s something we’ll just have to overcome,” he said. “It’s the same for both teams so it’s not something we’re overly worried about.” 

It is set to be a taxing affair though, especially if the game goes to extra time and penalties.

“It’s a level playing field,” added the West Ham player. “It maybe makes the game more interesting. [If there's] extra time, both teams had a game a few days ago, both had to travel, so it’s going to be tough. It could be a battle of endurance. If it goes to penalties, I’d back myself and my teammates — a lot of us would be happy to take one.”

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Nevertheless, Crawford said his side didn’t practice spot kicks since arriving in Israel.

“We practised them all week so the day before, you just don’t know who is watching. Do you know what I mean? That’s not me being super paranoid, I know what goes on at this level and there’s every chance that there could be cameras on you, there could be ground staff that are watching. We have done all our work on them.

“We’ve got 25 players in this squad and everybody has practised penalties during the week so there is no stone unturned. Whoever is left on the pitch, if it does happen to go to penalties, will be prepared.”

So for Crawford as well as the players and other coaching staff, it is a big day, arguably the biggest of their careers so far in some cases.

“By far and away it would be my greatest achievement as a coach, a manager and a player [to help Ireland secure qualification]. At the very beginning of the campaign, you are getting a group of players together to start it and there was a strong narrative about X amount of players had gone on to the senior team and we understood that.

“We’ve got to this point, where we’ve already made history by being the first Irish team to get to a playoff, but now we’re one game away from making the finals and that would be a fantastic achievement but the players are the heroes here. They’re the ones who go out on the pitch, implement game plans and use their own individual brilliance and creativity to create chances and score goals.

“The final message [to them]: go and create history. I only got a couple of caps at U21 and I have never forgotten standing for the national anthem and putting on the green jersey. So what is it going to be like for these players to be the first group of U21s to qualify for the finals, in Georgia and Romania next summer? It’s something that will live with them for the rest of their [careers].

“But, more importantly, it will act as a springboard for their own development and profile to wherever they want to go in their own careers. What an opportunity. We are 90 minutes away from possibly achieving that but it’s not about pressure on the players. [They must] go and play their own game and enjoy the occasion.”

Possible Ireland XI: Brian Maher, Jake O’Brien, Joe Redmond, Eiran Cashin, Festy Ebosele, Andy Lyons, Joe Hodge, Conor Coventry,  Will Smallbone, Aaron Connolly, Mipo Odubeko. 

- Originally published at 00:01

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