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'We could've sold the game out twice. I've everyone looking for tickets at the moment'

Ireland’s U21 qualifier against Italy at Tallaght Stadium next Thursday is a sell-out.

THE LEVEL OF support garnered by Ireland’s U21s since Stephen Kenny took over as manager has been nothing short of unprecedented this year.

The Irish public had been largely indifferent to U21 fixtures in recent years, but with a squad brimming with exciting young talents coming through, an attractive style of play that’s easy on the eye and an ambitious manager at the helm, perceptions are changing.

stephen-kenny-speaks-to-his-team-before-the-penalty-shootout Ireland's U21 players gather to listen to Stephen Kenny at last summer's Toulon Tournament. Source: TGSPHOTO/Paul Dennis/INPHO

Tottenham’s Troy Parrott, Liverpool goalkeeper Caoímhin Kelleher, Brighton’s Aaron Connolly, QPR defender Conor Masterson and captain Jayson Molumby are just some of Kenny’s players which are now becoming household names.

Next Thursday’s Euro 2021 qualifier at home to top seeds Italy has all the makings of a high-quality affair. Tickets for the game have already sold out and a new record crowd for an U21 international fixture will be set.

Kenny’s first game in charge [a 3-0 victory over Luxembourg] initially set a new attendance record, which had stood since 1995, but even that turn-out of 4,772 didn’t blow the 47-year-old away. He has bigger sights.

“It’s absolutely fantastic really,” Kenny said when asked about next week’s qualifier against Italy selling out weeks in advance.

imago-20190910 Defender Darragh Leahy blocks a shot during Ireland's recent 3-1 victory away to Sweden. Source: Imago/PA Images

“When it was mentioned that the game against Luxembourg [in March] was a record over the last twenty years for an U21 game, I didn’t think it was time for us to be patting ourselves on the back because, for me, that wasn’t a great statistic.

“I didn’t think that it was worthy of congratulations. It’s something that we had planned. We said as a group, after the first game with Luxembourg, if we can get two wins, if we can beat Sweden, then we can sell Italy out. The players are all aware that that was part of the thinking collectively.

“The fact that we’ve sold it out with a few weeks to go shows you the potential. People want to see good matches and this U21 international team will take on one of the best teams in Europe. It’s great, it’s a good news story to see a ground sold out like that.”

Italy boast an impressive squad, and Kenny is under no illusions of the threat they pose. Everton’s Moise Kean, Sassuolo’s Manuel Locatelli, Wolves striker Patrick Cutrone [recently of AC Milan] and AS Roma’s Nicolò Zaniolo are just some of their star names.

italy-u21-v-spain-u21-uefa-european-under-21-championship-group-a-renato-dallara Everton attacker Moise Kean will be one of Italy's biggest threats in Dublin next week. Source: EMPICS Sport

With so many exciting Serie A regulars arriving in Dublin for what promises to be a thrilling qualifier, the Ireland boss admitted his frustration at the infrastructure within Irish football at the moment.

With its new South Stand completed and a fourth stand on the way, Tallaght Stadium can host upwards of 8,000 supporters. Kenny mused, though, that if a bigger stadium had been available, perhaps even more Irish fans could have been accommodated. 

“Maybe we could’ve sold it out twice? I’ve everyone looking for tickets at the moment. We could’ve sold it out twice, maybe. It shows that after the Aviva Stadium there is no other stadiums in the country — apart from Gaelic grounds — that we have access to. It shows the short-term thinking.

“The whole idea of [a redeveloped] Dalymount Park having 6,000 seats is such a disappointment. People are so excited about the redevelopment of Dalymount but the fact that it’s going to be a 6,000-seater to me shows, to me, the narrow thinking. There’s a lack of ambition from the government to think that that’s adequate.”

With League of Ireland clubs like Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers trying to make strides in European competition, growing interest in the Women’s National Team and underage international teams, Kenny says bigger, more suitable stadiums are needed to meet this growing demand.

“We have U21 internationals improving, there’s greater focus on the underage teams from the U19s games right down to the U15s, the women’s team will continue to emerge and grow and in the future crowds will come out for them,” Kenny said.

stephen-kenny Kenny's side are top of Group 1 in qualification with three wins over Luxembourg, Armenia and Sweden. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I think grounds are needed. Clubs here get into the group stages of the Europa League so it has to be an ambition. All of those things need facilities. We’re delighted to sell the Italy game out, hopefully it isn’t an isolated game that we sell out.

“I think anyone that has come to games has really enjoyed watching the team play. We’re going to get a really tough game against Italy, because they are a really talented team. It has the makings of a very exciting game.”

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Aaron Gallagher

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