Friday 27 January 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Ben Brady/INPHO Irish players celebrate a goal against Montenegro.
# Great expectations
Ireland's youngsters on the verge of making history
A win against Italy would see Jim Crawford’s men become the first Irish team ever to qualify for a major tournament.

FOR MANY of the Ireland U21 players that take to the field in Ascoli later today, there is a case to be made that it is the biggest game they have ever been involved in.

Jim Crawford’s side face Italy this afternoon (kick-off: 4.30pm, live on RTÉ2) knowing a win would see them become the first Irish U21s side ever to qualify for a major tournament.

And regardless of the result, the Boys in Green have already achieved an unprecedented feat in guaranteeing at least a playoff spot.

The 1-1 draw between Italy and Sweden on Thursday was the perfect result from an Irish perspective, as it ensured the latter could not displace them in second while also leaving open the possibility to top the group.

Skipper Conor Coventry did not watch the game — he played golf instead during a family trip to the Algarve. Meanwhile, Crawford tried, unsuccessfully, to stay away from it too.

“I would have found it hard to watch,” he says. “My son watched it and he updated me with the Sweden goal, which wasn’t good. Then he came back and said there’s a penalty. I saw the penalty live. And then he came out and told me there was a sending-off.

“So I decided then in my wisdom to look at the last couple of minutes, which I shouldn’t have done. Because Sweden had some scoring opportunities that made the heart stop.

“But I’ve looked at the game since and Italy were a far better team than Sweden. The number of chances they had and you could tell from the off that they didn’t want this game here [against Ireland].

“They wanted to win the group [by beating Sweden] and that’s certainly reflected by the way they shaped up and played. So I’m sure they were disappointed coming off that game, but it was great for us.”

Simply getting this far has been an impressive achievement for Crawford and co.

Consider the list of names still eligible for U21s football who have been fast-tracked to the senior side: Gavin Bazunu, Troy Parrott, Nathan Collins, Festy Ebosele, Jason Knight, Michael Obafemi, Aaron Connolly, Adam Idah and Andrew Omobamidele.

Crawford has suggested he will resist the temptation of calling on the services of those stars, even with the prospect of historic playoff or tournament games ahead, while paying tribute to the squad members who have served him well to this point.

“It does show there’s a real strength in depth at this age group. I don’t know are there many teams in Europe that could say that and promote 10 players to the senior team, and still get a real fantastic result against Scotland where you see Michael Obafemi scoring and setting up Troy Parrott and you look at Troy, he can go again for the next 21s campaign.

“You’ve seen some of the talent we have on display during this window already has been excellent and I’ve always known it from the start with this group that they are a good group. 

“The way we worked when we first got together — out first game against Wales where we said to ourselves as a staff, this group has really high potential, we can achieve things with this group.

“That coupled with certain individuals, Lee O’Connor, Conor Coventry who were mainstays in the last group and we didn’t qualify, we hit the post. They were the drivers of the group because they had that taste of getting so close, but yet so far. And it’s a horrible feeling and I felt it last year because I was with them from the start [as were] a lot of the staff. It was a real punch in the stomach not getting a playoff place last time, but to do it this year, it’s great.”

Crawford says his side must perform better compared to when they previously played Italy and suffered a disappointing 2-0 defeat in Tallaght.

But like the Boys in Green, the Azzurri have had some slip-ups leading up to this game, drawing twice with Sweden, while also being held away to Montenegro. Although they remain unbeaten from nine games, three of their six victories have been by a single goal.

“If you look at the games, they create so many opportunities. Those games where they dropped points in the group when the final whistle goes, I’m sure the manager is asking questions like ‘how did we not win that game?’

“Up the top end of the pitch, they’ve got really creative players that create good opportunities. It’s just that the final act of putting the ball in the net has been a difficulty for them.

“I know they’ve changed strikers numerous times. Kelvin Yeboah, Pietro Pellegri, the boy who played there the other day. So they’ve been shifting around their strikers as well.

“I wouldn’t read too much into it, but is it a case that the manager is still trying to find that goalscorer who converts those chances that they create? But they create lots of opportunities in many of those games.”

Exclusive Six
Nations Analysis

Get Murray Kinsella’s exclusive analysis of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign this spring

Become a Member

One added complication will be the conditions, which are likely to favour the hosts.

“Very hot, there’s no doubt about it,” Crawford added. “I think it’s over 31 degrees. That’s got to be factored into what we do. To go and press at a high intensity for 90 minutes is unrealistic so we have to be measured in our approach to that side of the game.

“As well as that, the last time we played Italy we could have been better at keeping the ball so that becomes a real key factor in this type of weather as well, you don’t give it away cheaply.

“So it’s very warm, we’re expecting water breaks. It’d be similar to the senior team when they went to Armenia.

“People will say Italy are more used to it, they probably are, but we’ll be okay.”

One player likely to key if Ireland are to get a victory is Will Smallbone. The Southampton midfielder missed the early part of the campaign after suffering a long-term injury on club duty but has looked back to his best of late, with a brace against Bosnia and another superb strike in the Montenegro game already in this international window.

“I said it to him about [nearly] getting a hat-trick alright, he was tired in his last attempt against Bosnia. To go again against Montenegro in the manner in which he did shows his fitness levels. He’s looked after himself.

“He’s a player who’s been through quite a lot as a footballer in terms of his ACL [injury]. I certainly won’t forget the day I was watching him against Leicester. He was doing really well in the game and all of a sudden he went down and I knew it didn’t look good.

“I said I’d get in touch with him in the next few days. Before that, I knew it was an ACL injury. It was a difficult phone call because he was upset. He was in a good place but I think it shows his character and mentality to get to where he is now.

“He’ll use this window, A: to get us to the finals, and B: to give him that foundation going into pre-season with Southampton. He’s been excellent. He’s a great individual. He can go anywhere, he’s got a real strong mindset and a real desire. You get that from the way he conducts himself on the training pitch and in team meetings, and it’s for everyone to see on the pitch.

“I can’t fault his desire to play for Ireland, his work ethic, his character. The next thing he has to do is to get into the Southampton team, or else play first-team football regularly somewhere, then we’ll see the catalyst as regards his own development. That’s what you need.” 


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel