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Dublin: 7 °C Monday 30 March, 2020

'The Irish footballing public are connecting with this group of players'

Stephen Kenny has helped oversee a rejuvenation of the Ireland U21 team’s fortunes.

The Ireland U21 team have had a 100% record in qualifying so far.
The Ireland U21 team have had a 100% record in qualifying so far.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

IT FEELS A very long time ago that the last top-tier nation at U21 level visited Tallaght Stadium for a competitive fixture.

In fact, it is just over 12 months since Germany ran riot, beating Ireland 6-0 in front of 2,325 spectators, and in the process putting a massive dent in their European Championship qualification hopes

Since that grim night, however, the mood around the Ireland U21 team has shifted dramatically.

While only two players that were involved that evening — Josh Cullen and Kieran O’Hara — have since graduated to senior level, a promising crop of youngsters have subsequently emerged.

Stephen Kenny has taken over from Noel King as manager, and the side have got the new campaign off to an excellent start, winning all three matches of their campaign so far, most notably an impressive 3-1 away victory over Sweden last month.

And on Thursday evening, the Irish team play host to the group’s top seeds, Italy, in their biggest test of the Euros qualification campaign so far.

Their task has been made more difficult by the unavailability of certain important squad members. Star man Aaron Connolly has been called up by the senior team, while Neil Farrugia, Trevor Clarke and Darragh Leahy are also among the absentees. Despite these difficulties though, Kenny remains enthused about the prospect of facing the Italians in a game for which there are no tickets left.

“It’s great to have a sell out. That’s what we want. It’s great that the Irish footballing public are connecting with this group of players, connecting with the team, they’ve seen the matches so far having played eight games. They’ve seen that the players are not afraid to express themselves. They’re good in possession, and they’ve shown a level of imagination in their play. And they sense a team with a high work ethic, so it’s a series of results that have led to a sell out against Italy.

Italy themselves are a formidable team. They’ve a lot of top-class players — Moise Kean [at Everton], Patrick Cutrone of Wolves played against Man City at the weekend, Manuel Locatelli, their captain, Alessandro Bastoni played for Inter Milan against Juventus at the weekend. So they’ve got a serious team. We respect their strengths. Our team has also, on occasion, been brilliant over the last eight games, so I think the standard of the match will be very high.

“We’ve adjustments in our team to make obviously. Other players will get an opportunity. That’s what we need make sure we do — get the balance right and that we’re ready to go against Italy and it’ll be a really top-class game.”

He continues: “I think consistently we’ve seen the potential of the team grow. From the opening game against Luxembourg. We also had tough games in the tournament in France in the summer. Armenia, we were quite dominant in that game and we just couldn’t take our chances overall.

“Sweden was a different type of game, because it’s one thing seeing potential, but it’s very hard to describe character or articulate exactly what it is. When you’re 1-0 down and away to Sweden and their goalkeeper’s making some great saves, you get a penalty kick and that’s saved, the clock is running down, the fact that you can go on and win 3-1 speaks volumes for the attitude of the players and their persistence and eagerness to keep going.

“But that’s in the past. The nature sometimes with football is that you have to prepare yourself all over again. You can’t dwell on anything. And they’ve got to go again against Italy on Thursday.

Outside the Brazil game, the whole team only conceded two goals in seven games and we’ve carried a real attacking threat in all the games and we were quite expansive. So I think the test is to do that against Italy, who control games. They dictate the tempo of games themselves, so it’s a battle of control really. We have to try to establish control ourselves against a team that are set up in a very attacking way.”

stephen-kenny Stephen Kenny speaks at a pre-match press conference on Tuesday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

While Connolly in particular has grabbed headlines owing to his impressive brace for Brighton against Tottenham on Saturday, other Irish youngsters have also been acquitting themselves well of late.

Since the last international window, two of Kenny’s key players — Troy Parrott and Caoimhín Kelleher — made senior debuts in the League Cup for Tottenham and Liverpool respectively.

“They can take confidence from it and from our performances. With the U21s, Caoimhín’s played in all of the games. Troy, of course, in his first games as U21 international has scored three goals — he’s had a dramatic start. For a 17-year-old player, that’s unheard of, to come in like that and have such an impact. To score winning goals in both matches and the quality of goals. They can take great confidence from it.”

It’s coming up to a year for Kenny in the job and the former Dundalk boss is hoping to build on a superb start over the coming days.

It’s been a great challenge to formulate a new team, get it ready, [implement] an ethos within the team and try to get the players to fulfil their potential. You don’t judge it over a few matches, you’ve got to judge it over a campaign.

“We’ve got tough matches coming up. We’re the fourth seeds in the group — Italy, Sweden and Iceland are seeded above us. We’ve got the first and third seeds, we play Italy on Thursday and Iceland on Tuesday. So big games for us — we have to make sure we’re absolutely ready and hopefully we can get positive results.”

Eoin Toolan and Murray Kinsella join Gavan Casey to give an in-depth breakdown of where Ireland’s play stacks up against the contenders in Japan, and look into why New Zealand and England are primed for World Cup success.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Paul Fennessy

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