'I couldn't be more proud of the players out there'

Jim Crawford and Conor Coventry praised the Ireland U21 side after an agonising penalty shootout defeat in Israel.

Ireland players show their disappointment after losing on penalties.
Ireland players show their disappointment after losing on penalties.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IRELAND U21S boss Jim Crawford expressed pride in his players following their heartbreaking penalty shootout defeat to Israel on Tuesday night.

The Boys in Green had already made history by becoming the first Irish U21s side to qualify for the playoffs and came agonisingly close to reaching a first-ever major tournament.

Following a 1-1 draw during the first leg in Tallaght, they drew 0-0 in Tel Aviv before a 3-1 loss on spot kicks. 

“That’s football for you,” Crawford said afterwards. “It can be cruel at times. I couldn’t be more proud of the players out there today. It was backs against the wall for large portions of the game.

“And we expected that, we knew that. It probably goes back to the first leg where we missed those gilt-edged chances that had we scored them, it would put us in a really strong position.

“And we obviously caused them some concern because they dropped down three senior players who played on Saturday against Albania so they knew the threat that we posed. So the players did their country, their clubs and their grassroots clubs proud — the coaches who got these players interested in football in the first place, their parents.

“It’s a great group of players and that’s one to 25. It’s very difficult leaving players out of that today.

“But as you’ve seen at the end, everybody was together. Everybody was devastated in the dressing room for one another. And that’s what we set out to establish with this group of players — a real team shift, and we certainly got that.

“The performance was a lot of blocks and first contacts in our own box. We created a couple of chances ourselves. Coming out here we lost even more players — Mark McGuinness, Luke McNicholas, Gavin Kilkenny and a few others. So with them missing out, it gave other players an opportunity.

“They did themselves proud. All I can say is that the future in the short to mid-term looks really promising.”

Ultimately, Ireland scored just one of their spot kicks out of four, with Tyreik Wright, Evan Ferguson and Dawson Devoy all failing to find the net.

Asked whether nerves were a factor in the shootout, Crawford replied: “You can practice penalties all you want in Abbotstown. But nothing compares to the pressure that was on these players here today. You’d like to think the players will learn from that experience. It’s a real punch in the stomach for the players.

“Of course, I’m biased but they didn’t deserve it because of how hard they’ve worked since last September. Young boys have come in, stood up to the test brilliantly and some of them have really promising futures ahead of them.”

The game marked the end of the road in this team for Conor Coventry among other soon-to-be-overage players.

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The Irish skipper, who was the only Irish player to score a penalty, bows out following a distinguished run that saw him recently become the record caps holder at U21 level.

“The lads in there, some of them are still boys and to have the bottle to stand up and take a penalty in front of that many fans, I have much respect for everyone,” he said. “I thought we gave everything tonight and I just love playing with this team.

“I think everyone left everything out there. I think they probably were the better team tonight. I think we were the better team in Tallaght, maybe we could have capitalised on that a bit more.

“What can I say? It’s penalties. Obviously, it’s a skill but there’s a bit of luck involved as well and congratulations to them.”

Asked to sum up his journey, the West Ham youngster added: “It’s been amazing. I’ve been through so much. Obviously, coming in as one of the younger ones and where I am now, being able to captain the team and play as many games as I have has been the biggest honour I’ve had really.

“It’s something I’ll always be proud of, just devastated it’s over. But the next group have got a lot of quality. We had a lot of young lads out there tonight and lads who came on that must have futures ahead of them. For the next campaign, hopefully, they can kick on and qualify. We didn’t but in the future, there’s a lot of hope for this group.” 

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