The man tasked with continuing the progress made by Stephen Kenny with the Ireland U21s

Jim Crawford takes charge of a group of promising youngsters.

jim-crawford New Republic of Ireland U21 manager Jim Crawford. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

AT THE RISK of being accused of hyperbole, 2019 could be described as a year of unprecedented progress for the Republic of Ireland at U21 level.

Following his appointment as manager at a grade which has historically produced scant success, Stephen Kenny guided his side to the top of a European Championship qualifying group that they entered as fourth seeds.

There are still three games remaining, but Ireland have already picked up five wins – something an Irish U21 team has never managed before in a qualifying campaign.

After his immediate promotion to the senior job was announced last weekend, Kenny won’t get the opportunity to complete his mission with the U21s.

Ireland’s bid to qualify for the European Championships for the first time is now in the hands of Jim Crawford, who was a member of Kenny’s coaching staff.

Crawford, who has recently coached alongside Alan Reynolds at League of Ireland Premier Division club Waterford, will be assisted by former Ireland defender John O’Shea.

Born to Irish parents in Chicago, Crawford lived in Dublin from the age of eight and was an Irish U21 international midfielder during his own playing career.

As he told FAI TV this week, the 46-year-old is keen to continue the progress made by Stephen Kenny, which yielded a couple of comprehensive wins over Sweden and a draw against Italy.

FAI TV / YouTube

“I’ve learnt a lot from him, what he brings to the manager’s role with regards to him creating excellent environments for players to go and express themselves,” said Crawford.

“Everybody knows he’s about possession-based football, players going to express themselves, be creative on the ball and really you need the right environment to have that as your output.

“All this is underpinned with a culture of excellence – the staff that he brings in, the demands he gives the staff and the high standards that he expects.

“It’s something that I’ve definitely taken on board and I look forward to implementing everything that I’ve learned from Stephen.”

After being spotted as a teenager while playing for Bushy Park side Terenure Rangers, Crawford was signed by Bohemians and won the PFAI Young Player of the Year award in 1994.

Newcastle United, who were legitimate Premier League contenders at the time, paid £75,000 to bring him to England, but first-team opportunities were scarce.

Crawford had spent a couple of years on the books at St James’ Park by the time he made two appearances for the club under Kenny Dalglish in the space of six days in March 1997.

After being introduced as a substitute for Les Ferdinand in a 4-3 defeat at Liverpool, he came off the bench to replace David Ginola in a 4-0 home win over Coventry City.

soccer-newcastle-united-v-psv-eindhoven Crawford at Newcastle United. EMPICS Sport EMPICS Sport

Crawford’s time at Newcastle was hindered by injuries, although he’s pragmatic when reflecting on his prospects of establishing himself in the team. 

“Just when you started seeing a little bit of light, in comes David Batty,” he told The42 in an interview last July. “The pressure was always on. You had Lee Clark, who was a fantastic player. I’m looking at him, saying: Right, Jim. That’s the level.

“Lee probably would have felt hard done by that David Batty went straight in, because Lee was playing exceptionally well at the time. Lee was on the bench and I’m looking at it then, going: Right, Newcastle is probably too big of a club here and you have to go elsewhere.”

Loan moves to Rotherham United and Dundee United were followed by a stint at Reading, before Crawford returned to the League of Ireland to join Shelbourne in 2000.

During a hugely successful spell at Tolka Park, he became a four-time Premier Division winner and was a member of the Shels side that advanced to a tie against Deportivo La Coruna in the third qualifying round of the Champions League.

He brought his playing career to an end with a short spell at Sporting Fingal in 2008, a year which also saw him take his first steps in management as he took charge of Shamrock Rovers on an interim basis following the dismissal of Pat Scully.

Having initially worked for the FAI as a development officer, Crawford assisted former Ireland U19 manager Paul Doolin before being appointed U18 boss in 2016. That role was filled by Andy Reid last year when Crawford teamed up with Stephen Kenny in the U21 set-up. 

stephen-kenny-with-jim-crawford Crawford takes the Ireland U21 reins from Stephen Kenny. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“To be the first U21 team in history to qualify for a European finals would be just unbelievable for the country, for the players, for the coaches of the country, for the association, for everybody,” he said following this week’s confirmation of his appointment as U21 manager.

In their efforts to qualify for a tournament that has been deferred until 2022 due to the Covid-19 crisis, Ireland will complete their Group 1 campaign with games against Iceland, Luxembourg and Italy, which are all to be given new dates. The young Boys in Green hold a three-point lead at the top of the table, but Italy have played two games fewer.

Crawford added: “It’s a big challenge because the three games that are left are huge games. We all know about Iceland and the challenges they bring. Going away to Luxembourg and the way they play, they’ll make it difficult for us. And then obviously the Italians are hot favourites for the group.

“Going into this whole campaign we were fourth seeds, so to be sitting on top of the group now is fantastic. But there’s still loads more work to do.”

Crawford won’t be surprised if he’s forced to plan without key men who are summoned for senior involvement, and he expressed confidence in the depth of the pool of players available to him.

“I’ve been involved in international football now for quite a while and I’ve always been saying it that there’s real talent coming through the system and I think it’s there for everybody to see.

“There’s quite a few players that just might make the push up to the senior team earlier than expected. It’s up to me to fill those voids that the players have left behind. But I still know that underneath the group of U21 players at this present time, there is a lot of talent.” 

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