Ireland's youngsters two games away from history

Jim Crawford’s side face Israel at Tallaght this evening in their first playoff match.

The Irish team (file pic).
The Irish team (file pic).
Image: Ben Brady/INPHO

IT ULTIMATELY came down to a matter of seconds.

Back in November, Ireland U21s began an international window with a dispiriting 2-0 loss at home to Italy.

At that stage, their qualification hopes looked to be hanging by a thread.

Four days later, they faced Sweden in what felt like a must-win encounter.

The match appeared to be heading for a goalless draw when substitute Ollie O’Neill scored with literally the last kick of the game in the 93rd minute.

In the end, Ireland finished second to the Italians, thereby securing a place in the playoffs.

The Boys in Green finished only a point ahead of Sweden. Had the visitors held on for just a few more seconds in Tallaght that night, it would have been them and not Ireland heading into the playoffs this week.

It shows the incredibly slim margins that can separate teams at this level, and if Ireland are to finish the job by securing a place at the Euros, the upcoming playoff matches against Israel are unlikely to be any more straightforward than the group stages.

Such an achievement would be extra special, however, as it would be the first time ever that an Irish side has qualified for a major tournament at U21 level.

Jim Crawford says that these two upcoming matches are “without a doubt” the biggest of his coaching career so far.

“As I said to the players already, it’s 17 attempts to get this far with the 21s,” he told reporters at Thursday’s pre-match press conference. “I think that’s 34 years of playing U21s football and this is the furthest we’ve got. So we’re two games away from a place in the final — it’s unchartered territory.

“We can enjoy the experience but it’s about taking that next step. And we’ve worked on that from Monday morning to training later on this afternoon. Hopefully, the players that are picked can get us one foot over the line in the first leg and then it’s going to be another challenge getting over to Israel on their home patch. But the lads are looking forward to it, they’re excited and training has been good this week.”

The feat would be all the more remarkable given the number of players — still eligible for the 21s — that have been fast-tracked to the senior set-up.

Gavin Bazunu, Troy Parrott, Nathan Collins, Jason Knight, Michael Obafemi, Adam Idah and Andrew Omobamidele are among the individuals that could technically have played for Crawford’s team over the last few months but were unavailable due to their senior commitments.

The likes of Will Smallbone, Conor Coventry and Evan Ferguson have emerged in their stead and could next be in line for Stephen Kenny’s call.

“I think it is a matter of time. Now, I am not so sure, although Stephen has asked about certain players — he has asked to keep it private — but there are players who are definitely on his radar and that might be a case in November, where we’ve no games and it might be an opportunity to experiment with certain players with the friendlies [Norway and Malta] that were just announced.

“But with the group that got us this far I was confident we would keep the names you said there, be it Will Smallbone, Conor Coventry, Evan Ferguson.”

So is he optimistic he can retain more or less the same squad if Ireland do book their ticket to play at the Euros in Romania and Georgia next summer?

“Development of players is such a hard thing to predict. That’s why I am so careful talking about players. You see they are high potential but are they the finished product? No. All players go through peaks and troughs during their careers.

“For me, with international football, those players who are peaking closer to the window that you say: ‘Okay, they’ll come in and play.’

“I don’t know how Stephen operates, but if Evan Ferguson is playing first-team football with Brighton and he is scoring goals, I’d say there is every chance he will get a senior call-up.

“Same goes for Will Smallbone, who is doing very, very well at Stoke City at the minute so come the finals next June, who knows?

“Again, as everybody saw what is happening here, Stephen brought up 10 players but that opened the door for other players to show their worth and they have done, we have got to the playoffs.

“So when June comes, if Stephen takes up certain players from this particular squad it is an opportunity for other players to shine.”

jim-crawford Jim Crawford pictured at an Ireland U21 press conference on Thursday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Crawford has some tough selection calls to make ahead of tonight’s match.

Aaron Connolly, capped eight times at senior level, is expected to feature after dropping down to the 21s and impressing Crawford with his attitude this week.

However, exactly where the Venezia loanee operates is uncertain, with the Galwegian capable of playing both as the main striker or wide in an attacking three.

“I’d see him as a striker,” says Crawford. “What he offers with his pace, when he gets turned running at defenders from deeper areas he will cause problems but it’s also safe in the knowledge that if you have to play him out wide then he can do a job out there.

“But certainly, I see him as a nine and you have these conversations with players. That to me is the first indication as to where you will get the best out of that particular player.”

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Moreover, with Gavin Kilkenny ruled out through injury, there is also a spot up for grabs in midfield alongside captain Conor Coventry.

Will Smallbone could potentially drop back there having previously played in a more attacking role, while Joe Hodge and Finn Azaz, both of whom have yet to be capped at U21 level, could also play. Dawson Devoy may also come into contention, having started a number of times in midfield recently following his move from Bohemians to MK Dons.

“Finn has done well, he has shown a lot of good things in training so he is ready to go, he is ready to play. He has settled in with the group very well.

“His journey at the minute has been very positive, in terms of going to Newport and how he performed last year in League Two and he made a sensible step to League One where he has been excellent with Plymouth.

“He has come in and done very well but we still need to see what the starting XI is going to be for the first game.

“I have no doubt there are going to be changes in the second game. Somewhere along the line, I have no doubt we are going to see some new caps.”

Israel, meanwhile, are expected to pose a real challenge. They finished second in their group, behind only Germany, who needed two last-gasp goals to beat them 3-2 in Paderborn last October.

Like Ireland though, they also experienced a few moments to forget, including a shock loss to Latvia.

“They got beat by Latvia and to be honest, I don’t know how they got beaten with the number of chances they created. It was just one of those games where Latvia got bodies behind the ball and blocked shots and cleared off the line. Israel had really good chances that they missed in front of the goal so even in a game like that, it showed their qualities in carving open chances against a team with a lot of bodies behind the ball. They [subsequently] beat San Marino quite comfortably to finish the group.

“You look at other games and Germany scored last minute to win 3-2 and that to me is a more realistic gauge of what we are up against. They are a well-organised team, aggressive, and very counter-attacking.

“They’ve got pace up top, the boy [Osher] Davida that’s in the squad, [Stav] Nachmani, quick players that, if you switch off for any instant, they will hurt you. They have really talented footballers, [Mohammed] Kna’an, [Oscar] Gloukh who plays with Maccabi Tel Aviv, he played with the U19s against England. 

“Even coming up through their system you see the U19s, they got to the finals. I think their senior team are top of their Nations League. So they are on the crest of a wave at the minute.

“It’s a big challenge for us and it’s something the boys are looking forward to.”

Possible Ireland starting XI: Brian Maher; Lee O’Connor, Eiran Cashin, Jake O’Brien, Andy Lyons; Conor Coventry, Dawson Devoy; Festy Ebosele, Will Smallbone, Aaron Connolly; Evan Ferguson.

The first leg of Ireland’s playoff with Israel kicks off at 7pm in Tallaght Stadium tonight and the game is live on RTÉ2.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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