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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 16 October, 2019
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'They've nothing to fear in their international careers. They're equal to the best players in the world'

Ireland U21 manager Stephen Kenny hailed his players for their fourth place finish at the Toulon Tournament.

Ireland players celebrate Adam Idah scoring a penalty during Saturday's shoot-out.
Ireland players celebrate Adam Idah scoring a penalty during Saturday's shoot-out.
Image: TGSPHOTO/Paul Dennis/INPHO

STEPHEN KENNY HAILED his young squad on Saturday as Ireland brought the curtain down on this year’s Toulon Tournament with a disappointing 4-3 penalty defeat to Mexico in the third/fourth place play-off.

Ireland’s U21s made history at this year’s competition, becoming the first side from this country to compete in two decades and making the semi-finals for the very first time.

Kenny’s side beat 4-1 China, drew 0-0 with Mexico and beat Bahrain 1-0 in the group stages, but came up short 2-0 against an impressive Brazil side in the final four on Wednesday afternoon.

For the second time at this month’s competition nothing could separate Ireland and Mexico, with the pair held 0-0 after normal time before the Boys in Green came up short during a controversial shoot-out where Ireland were ordered to re-take penalties.

Lee O'Connor with Alan Medina Manchester United's Lee O'Connor in action against Alan Medina of Mexico. Source: TGSPHOTO/Paul Dennis/INPHO

“I think overall it’s been a terrific experience for everyone,” Kenny said. “Listen, everyone’s gutted that we lost a penalty shoot-out today and that’s the way football is. It’s a cruel way to lose, especially controversial with Darragh Leahy having to re-take it and all that went with that.

But I think, for us, all 22 players that participated in the tournament, which is terrific. A lot of those players getting their first caps, first U21 caps, it’s a big step on the ladder for them, really. It’s a big honour to be an U21 international. It was great that we could give everyone an opportunity.

“You’re playing against Mexico who will be going to the Tokyo Olympics next August. They’re a formidable team and our players matched them equally and a draw was probably fair. It was a real epic battle in 30 degree heat, but a lot of our players didn’t do themselves any harm and did very well overall.”

The former Dundalk boss said this year’s Toulon Tournament had been a brilliant experience for his young side. Kenny succeeded Noel King as U21 boss at the end of last year and has overseen a positive transition during his seven months in charge.

“It’s been a brilliant tournament,” he said. “We’ve beaten China and beaten Bahrain. We played against the calibre of Mexico and have been unbeaten [against them in normal time]. We were beaten by an incredible Brazil side in the semi-final, who are really exceptional.

“We blooded five U19 players and a lot of them were in our starting line-up. We probably had a much younger team than a lot of the teams here have. When you think about the U19 players — Jason Knight, Aaron Connolly, Conor Coventry, Lee O’Connor and Adam Idah — they all played big parts in the tournament.

It’s about giving players an opportunity as well as trying to win and seeing how they do and how they excel,” Kenny continued. “That’s the nature of it, some excel more than others. I’m very, very pleased overall.

“To come to a tournament of this calibre, a lot of the players showed that they’ve nothing to fear in their international careers. They’re equal to the best players [in the world] and I think that will stand us in good stead for the six qualifiers coming up.”

Ireland beat Luxembourg 3-1 in their opening Euro 2021 qualifier at Tallaght Stadium back in March. Next up, Kenny’s side take on Armenia in Dublin on 6 September, before travelling to face Sweden four days later.

“A lot of them are finding their way in life and are finding their way in football in different tiers,” Kenny said of his players. “Some are at Premier League clubs and some are a long way away from that, but I think everyone is finding their own route.

Murilo with Adam Idah Brazil's Murilo with Norwich striker Adam Idah during Wednesday's semi-final. Source: TGSPHOTO/Paul Dennis/INPHO

“There is not one single route that is best. Players are playing at different levels and I think we’ve shown that we have a lot of quality, a lot of technical ability.

“The players did brilliantly against a much-heralded Mexican team and I think some of the football the players have played in this tournament has been absolutely brilliant, a very high standard. They had a high standard in the game against Luxembourg in March and they’ve taken it on now in this tournament.

“We’ve tough games in the qualifiers with Sweden twice, Italy coming to Dublin, Armenia twice and Iceland away. So we’ve tough games, but we have those to look forward to and we can be optimistic. You can see the team evolving in a good way and there’s a tremendous spirit in it.”

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Aaron Gallagher

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