Jim Crawford’s U21s have spent 18 months scrambling to be the first Republic of Ireland side to make a major finals at their grade. Account for Israel across two legs in the next five days and the campaign will stretch through to June and Euro 2023 in Georgia and Romania.
“As I said to the players already, it’s 17 attempts to get this far with the 21s,” said Crawford. “I think that’s 34 years of playing U21s football and this is the furthest we’ve got. So we’re two games away from a place in the final. It’s uncharted territory.” Their predecessors would agree.
Don Givens once managed 13 games unbeaten, Noel King came home from Casarano in southern Italy with a 4-2 win over their hosts ten years ago, but the sum total of their combined two decades in charge amounted to consistent disappointments and, worse, apathy.
This story spills over a number of boundaries. Think of Conor Coventry, a mainstay in the team’s midfield, who has already racked up a record 26 caps at the grade. Or Lee O’Connor, another regular, whose 78 underage appearances for Ireland is out on its own.
There can’t be a man among the squad or the staff that isn’t acutely aware of the importance of this next 180 minutes and that brings with it the need for Crawford and others to get the mood music right.
These are players still learning their trade. Very few of them have experience of two-legged ties and the hope is that Tallaght Stadium will be full this time, unlike some weeks ago when a 7,000 ‘sell-out’ for the women’s side didn’t translate into enough bums on seats.
“The message is clear to the players: this is only the first game, so there are certain things you talk about,” said the manager. “It’s not the end of the world if you lose the game 1-0 because you still have another game to play. If you are winning in the first-leg, it’s far from over.
“So you have got to manage expectations, you’ve got to manage players’ views on the games, because the last thing you want is if we win the first-leg that players are going into the second-leg complacent. That could then be a real punch in the stomach for you.”
Crawford hasn’t been helped by the loss of some players to injury last weekend, centre-back Mark McGuinness in particular, but this is still a talented squad that has been boosted by the inclusion of new blood for this last push.
The recall of Aaron Connolly has caught the eye the most. Crawford sees the Galwayman as more of a No.9 than a winger but it doesn’t seem likely that he will leave Brighton’s Evan Ferguson on the bench so how he might accommodate both will be interesting.
Connolly’s willingness to step down to the 21s having won eight senior caps was predicated on conversations he had with the manager who is thrilled by what he has seen in camp from a player he describes as sharp and a goal threat.
“And look, I’d imagine it’ll be difficult for him. We were training around the same time as the senior team and for him to get off our bus when the senior team were training, I wonder himself is he thinking: ‘Should I be over there with the senior team?’
“I had a conversation with him and he said: ‘I want to be here, I want to prove that I want to play for Ireland again and give everything I have and help the 21s to the playoff’. So his focus now is certainly with the 21s and I’m delighted to have him, particularly with the attitude and the ability he brings.”
Israeli football is in good fettle right now. Their senior side is top of their Nations League Group B group (weak though it is), and their U19s reached the final of the Euros this summer where they lost to England.
As for the U21s, they were minutes away from a win in Germany in the group stages only to concede twice late and lose 3-2. Poland and Hungary finished below them and a defeat to Latvia was a freak result where they laid siege to the opponents but got caught on the hop.
“They are a well organised team, aggressive, very counterattacking,” said Crawford.
The Dubliner was asked yesterday about the possibility that some of his best players – Ferguson, Will Smallbone, Coventry – could be called up by Stephen Kenny in the months to come and the effect that would have on his options in the event that the U21s have a summer in eastern Europe to consider.
That would be one of those nice problems.