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'It's about three years now since I've played for Ireland... It was tough'

Joe Hodge is ready to go again after experiencing a difficult time with injuries.

Joe Hodge (file pic).
Joe Hodge (file pic).
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Updated at 08.57

ONE OF the more eye-catching names in the Ireland starting XI to face Israel on Friday night was Joe Hodge.

Along with St Patrick’s Athletic defender Joe Redmond, the Wolves youngster was one of two players to make their U21s debut.

Manager Jim Crawford paid tribute to the pair afterwards: “Joe [Redmond] was excellent, it’s the way he plays at his club, he was a rock and I knew, I had no qualms at all, he’s captain at his club, a young captain and he had a big performance for us.

“And Joe Hodge was outstanding, for large parts of the first half he was the one driving us on, he got tired at the end but Joe has enormous potential.”

The youngster’s introduction into the team made sense — with first-choice midfielder Gavin Kilkenny out injured, Ireland needed someone to play alongside Conor Coventry.

Ostensibly, the only other viable alternatives were Dawson Devoy or playing Will Smallbone in a deeper role than usual.

But Hodge rewarded Crawford’s faith with an assured performance — he was consistently tidy in possession and made a few strong tackles and interceptions to boot.

While the 1-1 result leaves Ireland’s qualification fate uncertain ahead of Tuesday’s all-important second leg in Tel Aviv, Hodge was feeling positive afterwards.

“I enjoyed it, especially the first half. I thought we had a right go of it. It’s a shame we didn’t come away with more to take into Tuesday, but it’s definitely a good start for us.

“I was in the squad in the summer. I felt like I did alright then so I was hopeful I’d get the nod [to start], especially because I’ve played more games since then back at Wolves. I was just delighted when I found out. It’s where I want to be, being involved is even better, I’m delighted to be here.”

Hodge wasted little time in making his presence felt with a strong tackle in the opening stages.

“It’s always nice getting in the game and putting in a tackle in, getting on the ball, whatever it is that builds your confidence. I was just lucky it broke to me in the first minute to get involved.

“When we were going forward, the back five, me, Conor and Will in the midfield backed us up really well. Every time we tried to get out we were all over them. Even Brian [Maher] in goal playing the forward passes to get us up the pitch.

“I think we had them on the back foot for the majority of the first half. The intensity was high. We were pushing and stopped them from getting out from the back. Definitely, they didn’t enjoy the start of the game.”

As Ireland pushed for a late winner, in the 73rd minute, Hodge was replaced by Devoy, perhaps partially with the MK Dons youngster’s penchant for scoring the odd spectacular goal in mind.

“It was getting later on the game. I felt fine but the gaffer just wanted to make a change tactically. I had no problems with that.

“I’ve had no problems [in general]. I have played plenty of 90 minutes since I got back to Wolves, playing two or three games a week. Fitness is no issue for me.”

Ireland fans may remember Hodge as being a key player a few years back when the Boys in Green competed in major tournaments at U19 and U17 level — Gavin Bazunu, Andrew Omobamidele and Festy Ebosele were among his teammates in the latter competition and making it all the way to the semi-finals in the former.

“The experience of going over there [to Armenia] was brilliant, to showcase ourselves and show what we can do against the best teams in Europe,” he says. 

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However, that was 2019 and since then, the 20-year-old has had a difficult time with injuries.

“I don’t think I really saw the benefits of [playing in those tournaments] at club level. I was coming back into pre-season after that and got injured after a few weeks. So it’s about three years now since I’ve played for Ireland through injury and building my way back to fitness.

“Obviously, it’s great [to be back]. I’m a different player from when I was 16. It was good back then but I have to start over and forget about that.” 

An FA Youth Cup winner who was named Scholar of the Year at Man City, Hodge went on loan to Derry City last year but a back injury meant that ill-fated spell ended before it properly began.

Last summer, the midfielder left City to join Wolves, and he appears to be making encouraging progress, having made the bench for the Premier League side last month.

“It was tough [being out injured]. I didn’t play anywhere near as many games as I would have liked to, which didn’t help me one bit, the lack of games I played. But it toughens you up. It’s just getting knocked down and going again and going again. But I’m fit and playing the best football I have in ages now.”

A win against Israel tomorrow would consequently mean Hodge can represent Ireland in major tournaments at U17, U19 and U21 level — something not many players can claim to have achieved.

“It’s been a long campaign. I’ve not been involved in all of it, so the other lads would know better than me how hard it’s been to get to this point. I can see what it means to them, how hard they have worked to get here. It means everything to me, it’s a huge opportunity. We have never qualified before [at U21 level] so to qualify would be brilliant. 

“We know there’s another game on Tuesday. We’re not getting ahead of ourselves. It’s only half the job done and we’re not ahead so we have to go there and put another good performance in, so I’m ready for that, focused on it.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy  / reports from Tallaght Stadium

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