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‘There’ll be very little change’ – The man entrusted to succeed Stephen Kenny

Jim Crawford on his recent appointment as Ireland U21 boss.

Jim Crawford was appointed as Ireland U21 manager last week.
Jim Crawford was appointed as Ireland U21 manager last week.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

JIM CRAWFORD is no stranger to great expectations.

In 1995, having established himself as one of the best young players in the League of Ireland, he joined Newcastle United, who were among the top sides in the Premier League at the time, with Kevin Keegan’s men about to embark on a thrilling season where they would fall agonisingly short in a title race with Man United.

“Andy Cole had just gone so I think they were expecting a big signing and all of a sudden they had Jim Crawford,” he told The42 a couple of years ago. “Keith Gillespie was part-exchange and I came in the back door. I was just a kid that they had the opportunity to sign.”

Crawford was born in Chicago to Irish parents and moved back to Ireland at around eight or nine. He may never have fully established himself at Newcastle, despite two Premier League appearances, but still enjoyed an excellent career at League of Ireland level, winning four titles with Shelbourne among other feats.

Now though, the 46-year-old coach faces a challenge of a different sort. It may not be as high-profile as Newcastle and the Premier League, but it’s not exactly pressure-free either. Crawford has been handed the task of succeeding Stephen Kenny as Ireland U21 boss.

The former Dundalk manager was widely praised for his work in just over a year with the 21s. He has left the Boys in Green in a very healthy position — they currently top Group 1 as they bid to achieve qualification for the Euros. Although they are three points ahead of second-place Italy, the Azzurri have two games in hand, so it’s far from done and dusted.

The highlights of the Kenny era were probably two impressive wins over Sweden, the group’s second seeds, in addition to a creditable draw at Tallaght with favourites Italy.

Based on past performances, Crawford will be optimistic he can become the first-ever manager to guide Ireland to a major tournament at U21 level, but it won’t be easy. Their remaining games are Luxembourg and Italy away, as well as home to Iceland — the only team in the group that managed to beat the Boys in Green under Kenny.

While it may have happened slightly sooner than expected, it was always anticipated that Kenny would take over the senior job before the U21 qualification campaign ended. Crawford insists though that there was no similar pre-arranged plan for him to take charge of Ireland’s youngsters, and that the first he heard of his promotion was upon receiving a phone call from Kenny last Saturday.

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he tells The42. “A fantastic honour and a real privilege. I just couldn’t be prouder. I know it’s a big job.

“Within the space of 13 months, Stephen has really added colour within the U21s set-up.

“I’ve every confidence in my ability to continue the good work that’s been done.”

While he may not boast a comparable CV to Kenny, Crawford has worked under a number of high-profile and well-regarded coaches, including Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Tommy Burns and Pat Fenlon.

stephen-kenny-keith-andrews-and-jim-crawford Crawford has been tasked with succeeding Stephen Kenny as Ireland U21 boss. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

The ex-Reading player also certainly is no stranger to the Irish youth set-up. Aside from a brief spell as Shamrock Rovers caretaker boss in 2008, he has worked in various roles for the FAI.

In addition to work as a Development Officer, he has spent time as an assistant to Paul Doolin with Ireland U19s, and also experienced a couple of years as U18s boss before joining Kenny’s backroom staff with the 21s.

Crawford will be aided by the presence of an Irish football legend, with former Man United defender John O’Shea confirmed as his number two, while other members of the backroom staff will be announced in due course.

“John first and foremost is a fantastic person,” he says. “He’s got great values. He’s a hard worker. And he’s passionate about coaching. He wants to develop himself. He’s at Reading FC — he’s part of the coaching staff there. It’s fantastic for him, starting his coaching career at a club like that. I’m absolutely delighted to have him onboard, that’s for sure. I’ve been speaking to him a few times on the phone. Really, I can’t wait to get over to the UK to meet him, or he might come over here, and we can develop our own road map for the 21s.”

Results achieved during Kenny’s tenure have created increased expectations, but Crawford says his predecessor’s feats do not add to the pressure of the job.

“The biggest pressure comes from myself — always demanding the highest standards you possibly can. That external type of pressure wouldn’t affect me too much.

“I was part of the set-up with Keith Andrews, Rene Gilmartin and Stephen. We were all part of the process, I know what’s expected, I’ve learned a hell of a lot off Stephen in a short space of time. There’ll be very little change in what was going on, that’s for sure, with regards the structure of the camps and what have you. I’ll be okay on that side of it.”

And did Kenny offer Crawford any advice during the handover?

“Not so much advice, maybe a demand, where he still wants possession-based football, played in a creative, expansive way.

He made that clear and what I’ve learned off Stephen, and we’ve had numerous conversations about his beliefs in football and the way he likes to set up teams, I just found it intriguing over the last 13 months. As everybody’s seen, the way the U21 lads were able to express themselves and put on some unbelievable football displays is a credit to Stephen, and how he goes about his business. I’ve seen it work, I’ve seen it first hand and again I’m looking forward to taking over the mantle and implementing everything I’ve learned from Stephen.”

He continues: “There’s no doubt about it, there’s going to be real continuity between the senior teams and the U21s. There’s going to be a real connection with both the teams.

“I don’t think it’s happened before in the Irish set-up where we’d be a tight-knit group.

“In saying that, you’ve got Tom Mohan with the 19s, Andy Reid with the 18s, Collie O’Brien with the 17s, Paul Osam with the 16s, Jason Donohue with the U15s and even down to Niall Harrison working with the U14s age group, it’s all about players going and expressing themselves.

“There might be a couple of tweaks with the different age groups, but the work being done in all the age groups is phenomenal.

“We have monthly meetings with all the different managers from different age groups, and you can’t help but be proud and impressed with the way the coaches handle themselves and want their players to play at all the age groups. It’s a credit to the international managers, the coaches with the schoolboy clubs and the national league coaches. We’re all in this together.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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