Ireland's Daniel Mandroiu, Lee O'Connor and Daniel Grant dejected after the Iceland game. Tommy Grealy/INPHO

Ireland's youngsters determined to end campaign on a high after missing out on qualification

Conor Masterson insists there are positives to take for the team.

CONOR MASTERSON BELIEVES there are plenty of positives to take from the Irish U21 side’s latest campaign, despite their hopes of qualifying for the Euros ending with last Sunday’s defeat to Iceland.

Jim Crawford’s side needed victory to keep their hopes alive, but a late Valdimar Þór Ingimundarson goal ensured they will miss out on tournament football in March.

The loss means that Ireland’s last game, tomorrow’s clash away to bottom-of-the-table Luxembourg, is a dead rubber.

“It was a bitter one to swallow,” says team captain Conor Masterson. “We thought we had enough to beat them. It was a difficult one obviously, getting the red card [for Nathan Collins] as well didn’t help, but we have to move on now and focus on Luxembourg and try to get a good result for everyone.

“I just think we played against two good teams, to be honest. Italy were a top team, the way they set up and they knew our strengths. 

“It’s been an unbelievable journey, but that’s just football at the end of the day, it wasn’t meant to be.”

When it was put to him that losing a number of players through injury and to the senior set-up took its toll, Masterson replied: “You can say that, but I still think we had enough quality in the team to beat Iceland.

We were 1-1 with five, 10 minutes to go and some decisions from the referee and things just happen in the game that you can’t deal with.

“To be fair to Iceland, they set up well, they got the goal in the first 25 minutes and they made it very difficult for us.”

Masterson was keen to emphasise the positives for the team during this campaign, which included two victories over Sweden, as well as holding top seeds Italy to a 0-0 draw at home.

Since they kicked off qualifying with a 3-0 victory over Luxembourg in March 2019, no fewer than nine players have earned call-ups to the senior squad — Jack Taylor, Lee O’Connor, Nathan Collins, Dara O’Shea, Jason Knight, Troy Parrott, Caoimhín Kelleher, Jayson Molumby and Adam Idah — with six of those individuals so far winning senior caps.

And QPR defender Masterson is aiming to follow suit.

“I’d like to hope so, but I’m just focused on the next game at hand for the 21s and doing our best and getting the win tomorrow against Luxembourg, and showing people in Ireland that we still can do it and we’ve a good team here.

“We had a great campaign, to be honest, and we were in a great position. It’s just sometimes you get things wrong. Just games don’t go your way, decisions in the game don’t go your way and you can pay for it.

“It’s all a learning curve for us, but the talent that has come through the ranks, especially in this 21s team, has been brilliant and it is [encouraging] for all of us that Stephen is the manager, because he’s giving us opportunities as well to come through.”

The 22-year-old Celbridge native, who will be no longer eligible for Irish underage games after this week, also played down suggestions that concerns over the coronavirus pandemic has made international football difficult to enjoy.

“It’s an honour, it’s a proud day for my family and myself. Even meeting up with the lads, we’re all friends at the end of the day, so we love coming away with Ireland.”

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