The Irishman at the heart of England's most in-form team

Conor Coventry has been enjoying a memorable loan spell at MK Dons.

Conor Coventry has won more Ireland U21 caps than any other player in Jim Crawford's squad.
Conor Coventry has won more Ireland U21 caps than any other player in Jim Crawford's squad.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IT WAS not a great first half of the season for Conor Coventry by any means.

The 22-year-old had left parent club West Ham on loan to sign for Peterborough.

The move to the relegation-threatened team did not go as well as he would have hoped.

Coventry, who has one year left on his Hammers contract after this summer, made 12 appearances in the Championship, but only four of those were starts.

Midway through the season, he departed Peterborough and dropped down a division in another loan move, this time linking up with fellow Irish players Troy Parrott and Warren O’Hora at MK Dons.

That stint also began unpromisingly — on 22 January, they lost 1-0 at home to Doncaster, with Coventry substituted after 75 minutes.

Since then, however, both the player and club have kicked on in spectacular fashion.

MK Dons have not lost a league game since. Liam Manning’s side are in the midst of a 12-game unbeaten streak — by comparison, Premier League high-flyers Liverpool have only gone 10 matches without a loss.

Coventry featured in all 12 of those fixtures, and like fellow Irish players Parrott and O’Hora, has quickly become an integral player for the club.

The sitting midfielder is a similar type of footballer to another Irish graduate of the West Ham underage system, Josh Cullen, and it is not hard to imagine the duo one day lining out together for the senior national team.

“They probably come from the same school really of West Ham where you know, Conor, he’s a fantastic influence around the place,” says Irish U21s boss Jim Crawford.

“He’s part of our leadership group here. As soon as I was given the job, I said, for me, the captain of the team has to be like a Conor Coventry who has played in the last campaign as well.

“Even with last year’s group, standing next to the likes of Jayson Molumby and what have you, he was a leader, you could tell. And he’s kicked on again in this campaign.

“I think for me, he’s a real buffer between the group and the staff, his willingness to learn.”

The good work of Coventry and others means MK Dons are now third in League One, just four points behind table-toppers Rotherham, whose squad includes Irish trio Chiedozie Ogbene, Joshua Kayode and Georgie Kelly.

“I’ve gone over to watch him with MK Dons numerous times and he’s getting better and better, he really is,” adds Crawford. “He’s really a key component for these players, and for MK Dons, they’re in the mix in the play-offs places at the minute, and challenging for automatic [promotion].

“That will be great for him in that kind of environment and there is nothing more I’d like to see than him helping MK Dons into the Championship.”

“I’ve felt good there, felt part of it from the day I’ve walked in,” says Coventry. “I’m just really enjoying playing every week. Obviously, it’s great because we’re chasing something, we’re top of the table and that’s what you want as a player. I’m loving it at the moment.”

One key aspect of Coventry’s resurgence following the Peterborough disappointment is the fact that he has simply been given the chance to play regularly in what is generally a very youthful MK Dons side.

“I think it’s the first time in my career so far that I’ve really had a run of games,” he explains. “I’ve never really had that run of seven or eight games in a row. And that’s what I feel has really helped me. Mentally, I feel a bit more developed and as a player, playing games can only help. I feel in a much better place than I did when I first joined the club.

“Games can only help you and being in a team that has a lot of the ball most weeks, I thought that really helped me under the coaches and a manager that wants to play a certain way and believe in young players and trust us.” 

Manning, of course, previously knew Coventry well, having coached West Ham’s U23 side between 2015 and 2019, and the player admits the coach has been key to his recent progress.

“I was 15 or 16 when he came to West Ham and he was someone I always worked very closely with. He took a real interest in my career and is someone who helped me massively to develop as a person and a player.

“I’m so grateful for what he has done for me since January and I think that he has helped me and developed me again.

“Personally, I can’t speak highly enough about him.”

Asked what has gone so right amid their incredible run, Coventry adds: “I think that it’s a collection of things, it’s hard for me to pin down one or two. We’ve got a young team that wants to learn and to play a certain way and is really brave in doing so.

“We’ve got a manager who backs us to do that and gives us the licence to be brave and play how we are.

“It’s similar to [the Ireland U21s], the bond in the group, everyone is on the same page and pulling in the same direction. That’s a great starting point.”

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And while Coventry may still be a relative newcomer in relation to regular senior football, there are few individuals who are more experienced at international level when it comes to U21 football.

With 22 appearances under his belt, no player in the current Irish squad has featured more times at this level, though he won’t have played in many more important games than this evening’s crucial qualifier with group rivals Sweden.

There have been plenty of highs and lows already in the campaign, with the team’s best moment so far coming back in November when they snatched a last-gasp win over the Swedes at Tallaght.

Crawford’s men trail the group leaders by four points going into today’s game and Coventry suggests his side need to be more consistent if they are to achieve their aim of qualification for what would be their first-ever major tournament at U21 level.

“I think it’s been a bit mixed. There have been games when we’ve played well and got good results. In other games, maybe we have not been at our best, while in others we played well without getting the result.

“But there are real signs of what we are trying to do, you can see this by the way we are trying to play and the way we want to take football forward.

“It’s still in our hands and with four games left, we are right in the mix. We’ve got the chance to put anything that’s been wrong, right.

“We still feel that we can come first [in the group]. We’ve got to play Italy, we’ve got two other home games and we’ve got Sweden whom we have already beaten.

“So why not chase first? And if we don’t, then we’ll obviously take the second spot.”

This week on the Front Row – The42’s new rugby podcast in partnership with Guinness – panellist Eimear Considine makes a welcome return… and she’s brought her Ireland roommate, Hannah O’Connor, along too. They chat about broken noses, tanning routines, initiation songs and balancing the Women’s Six Nations with teaching, plus how one fan named her child after Ireland winger Beibhinn Parsons! Click here to subscribe or listen below:

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