Bryan Keane/INPHO Reece Grego Cox has scored some important goals for Ireland U21s in recent times.
3 years after Premier League debut, Ireland U21 star aiming to prove doubters wrong in non-league
After his release from QPR, Reece Grego-Cox is getting first-team football at Woking.

DECLAN RICE LINKS up with the Ireland U21 squad this week having achieved what many of his underage team-mates hope to emulate.

The West Ham youngster delivered a man-of-the-match performance for the Ireland senior team in the 1-0 loss to Turkey on Friday.

Rice has also got plenty of game time in the Premier League this season and is one of the few teenagers in England being given opportunities to play in the top flight in recent times.

In many ways though, the 19-year-old Hammers defender is an anomaly. A look around the rest of the Irish U21 squad suggests as much and Premier League football seems a long way off for many.

Players such as Kieran O’Hara (Man United) do not look close to breaking into their clubs’ first teams.

Others such as Harry Charsley (Everton – on loan at Bolton Wanderers), Connor Ronan (Wolverhampton Wanderers – on loan at Portsmouth) and Olamide Shodipo (QPR – on loan at Colchester United) have gone elsewhere in search of first-team football. Meanwhile, another squad member, Connor Dimaio, is unattached, having left Chesterfield back in January.

While Rice is fortunate to have been entrusted with a first-team spot, others face two choices: be patient and hope the club have a manager who is willing to be bold and pick an untried youngster, or move down to the lower leagues where opportunities are less scarce. Reece Grego-Cox is one player who has gone with the latter option. The young attacker was highly rated by QPR, the club he joined in 2010, at 13 — the three-year anniversary recently passed of his Premier League debut, when he appeared as a late substitute against Tottenham. He went on to make a further three top-flight appearances that season, including a start against Leicester.

“That season was a memorable one,” he tells The42. “The team I was surrounded by, the players I was surrounded by, were fantastic professionals. They helped me through it.

Coming on at half-time at home against Newcastle 1-0 down — it was a lot of pressure for me. I played very well in the second half and we ended up winning the game 2-1. I was getting a lot of applause from the fans and the players, [people were] saying ‘you changed the game even though you didn’t score, your presence on the pitch changed the game.’”

It has been an unusual journey for Grego-Cox. As a youngster, he contemplated quitting football and actually did temporarily, instead lining out as a fly-half in rugby for his school.

“A few people I knew said ‘you’re too good not to be playing football’. They got me back down at the local side [Bedfont Sports] and it obviously kicked on from there. I broke the all-time goalscoring record where I was and then got a trial at QPR. So I’m glad I got back into football. It’s given me a lot of opportunities and I’ve travelled around quite a lot.”

After impressing for QPR at underage level, Grego-Cox was contacted by the Football Association of Ireland. Though born in London, he qualified to represent the Boys in Green through his grandmother from Clare. Since then, he has been part of the U17, U19 and U21 set-ups.

“It happened when I was at QPR playing for the U16s and I just got a call-up from the U17s. I just said: ‘Yeah, it’s international football, it’s good recognition. I literally just decided then really and played campaigns and really enjoyed it.

“I just feel like I have to show respect to Ireland and thank them for the opportunity they’ve given me.

“They’ve shown me a lot of respect over the years, so you won’t have to panic about me changing [international allegiance].”

Queens Park Rangers v Burnley - Premier League Julian Finney Richard Dunne was among those to offer a young Grego-Cox advice. Julian Finney

During his time at QPR, Grego-Cox got a chance to mix with a number of high-profile senior pros, including Rio Ferdinand and Richard Dunne.

“The defenders would give advice on how they wouldn’t like how a striker would move,” he recalls.

“The way I play, I’m quite aggressive. Richard Dunne said ‘never take that out of your game’. He was always saying to get stuck in all the time and he likes that, to be honest.

“I was surrounded by good attackers at the time, like Charlie Austin, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Bobby Zamora. They all gave me good advice on finishing and movement and things like that.”

Grego-Cox spent eight years in total at QPR and while he is grateful for the opportunities the club afforded him, he admits to finding the experience “frustrating” at times towards the end of his stint there. Injuries and frequent managerial upheaval did not help matters.

After the four Premier League appearances in the 2014-15 campaign, Grego-Cox played just once the following season — a 2-1 defeat by Carlisle in the League Cup. The next year, he made eight appearances on loan at Newport County in League Two before a bad injury cut short his stay there. He subsequently recovered and finally made his Championship bow, coming on as a late substitute on the last day of the 2016-17 campaign, amid a 4-0 loss to Norwich.

Opportunities in 2017-18 remained limited, however, and in January, it was announced that Grego-Cox was leaving QPR to join Woking in the National League.

“I felt like I just needed to play as many first-team games as possible,” he explains.

It was a mutual agreement to be fair. I spoke to QPR and said ‘I need to be playing first-team football,’ whether that was on loan or a clean break. We sat down and spoke about it for quite some time. They actually were happy for me to leave and at the time, I was happy, but when it happened, I was a bit emotional because I’d been at the club for so long.

“After I made the decision and it all was a reality, it sort of hit me a little bit — I’m starting fresh and just [would be] playing the games really.”

Since the big move, Grego-Cox has been granted his wish of being able to play regular first-team football. Since the switch at the turn of the year, he has made 11 appearances for Woking, scoring two goals in the process.

“It’s been good. Playing men’s football week in week out will only make you stronger and better and [enable you to] gain experience, so that’s what I’m enjoying about it so far.

“But I’ve only signed until the end of the season and I’m hoping the summer will bring more opportunities to try to get back into league football — that’s my main focus, because I feel like I deserve it and that I can actually play a consistent season in league football.”

473600448 Shaun Botterill Grego-Cox made a handful of Premier League appearances during his time at QPR. Shaun Botterill

While Grego-Cox is happy to be getting regular playing time, such responsibility brings its own pressures. His club are currently 18th in the National League, just four points off the relegation zone. There is consequently an element of relief in getting away from this stressful situation for a few days.

“I spoke with the manager at Woking and he said ‘international football will give you good recognition and publicity for the summer’. He’s very supportive, as is Noel King here. It’s nice to get away for a few days and concentrate on the Euros and the games coming up, as well as being in and around the stress of the league games.”

With Ireland, Grego-Cox has been a key player in this qualification round. He has scored four goals in five group fixtures, including one in the 3-1 victory against Azerbaijan in Baku after a journey that encompassed “two flights and staying one night in Istanbul”.

The same opposition, who are currently bottom of the group on one point, face the Irish team again on Tuesday evening at Tallaght Stadium.

We went into that [initial] game not knowing much about Azerbaijan. They were very good going forward, not so much on the transition, defending, and I think we capitalised on that when we won the ball back and we broke forward very quickly. I’d say we have a lot more quality than them, but we don’t want to get too complacent.

“I’m hoping tomorrow’s game should be more comfortable [than the away fixture], especially now we’re at home and they’ve got to do the travelling.”

Ireland have never qualified for a major competition at U21 level before, but Noel King’s side have given themselves a decent chance this time around. They are currently second in their group, five points behind Germany with a match in hand.

Of their remaining encounters, they will be expected to beat Azerbaijan, Israel and Kosovo. The team also play the Germans twice, in September at home and October away, in clashes that will likely determine whether or not they emerge as group winners.

But with the four best runners-up qualifying for a play-off to reach next year’s European Championships in Italy and San Marino, it is vital at the very least that Ireland don’t slip against the so-called lesser sides.

“We’re not looking to come second, but we all have that in the back of our minds as well, and the [possible] need to be one of the four best runners-up. That would also be a stepping stone into qualifying.

“But all the lads and myself definitely want to win the group and have that automatic qualification.”

eir Sport / YouTube

After tomorrow, Ireland U21s don’t play another competitive match until next September. In the intervening period, Grego-Cox faces a crucial couple of months, as he hopes to help Woking avoid relegation. If he will still even be at his club the next time the Irish squad meets up for a qualifier is uncertain and whether he will ever emulate his team-mate Rice also remains to be seen.

Certainly though, it would be foolish to write the 21-year-old off. There are countless examples of players in the current Irish senior team — including Harry Arter, Jon Walters, Seamus Coleman and James McClean — who spent time either in the League of Ireland or England’s lower tiers, before ultimately graduating to Premier League level. Grego-Cox remains optimistic he can follow suit and add to the four top-flight appearances he has accrued so far.

I’m one of the lucky ones [who made it through the underage system] and I feel like as a youth-team player, you have to keep playing and believe in yourself really. As a young player, I had to think about whether to leave QPR and start fresh, going down the leagues and working your way back up and building yourself back up.

“I believe in my ability and I made that decision, so for any youngsters out there, who want to strive and be the best and believe in their decisions as well, whatever decisions they actually make, they’ve just got to go through with them 100% and be sure before they actually make the decision. I was sure that, if I was to drop down a couple of leagues and play first-team football week in week out, I could actually progress back up the leagues. So for any youngster, they’ve just got to believe in themselves really.”

Republic of Ireland U21 squad
Goalkeepers: Kieran O’Hara (Manchester United), Liam Bossin (Nottingham Forest)
Defenders: Danny Kane (Cork City), Ryan Sweeney (Stoke City – on loan at Bristol Rovers), Shaun Donnellan (Yeovil Town), Corey Whelan (Liverpool – on loan at Yeovil Town), Liam Kinsella (Walsall), Ryan Delaney (Rochdale AFC)
Midfielders: Josh Cullen (West Ham United), Rory Hale (Derry City), Declan Rice (West Ham United), Connor Dimaio (Unattached)
Forwards: Reece Grego-Cox (Woking FC), Ryan Manning (QPR), Ronan Curtis (Derry City), Joe Quigley (AFC Bournemouth – on loan at Boreham Wood), Jake Mulraney (Inverness CT), Olamide Shodipo (QPR – on loan at Colchester United), Ronan Hale (Birmingham City – on loan at Derry City).

Tuesday, March 27: Ireland v Azerbaijan, Tallaght Stadium, KO 19:30. Ticket information can be found here.

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