By Darren Casserly
The Irish under-21 side has never qualified for the Under-21 European Championship. They have participated in every qualifying campaign since 1992, 15 attempts 15 failures.
However, there is now a sense that this time could be our time. We have started the campaign with a 100% record, with victories over Luxembourg, Armenia and Sweden. The victory over Sweden has shown that this outfit has class that hasn’t been seen from this age group ever before.
The talk around this new bunch of players has definitely been focused on the attacking options, such as Aaron Connolly and Troy Parrott. Since there has been a notable lack of attacking options at senior level, since the retirement of Robbie Keane, this is not surprising. However, this team is not as top-heavy as it looks, this is a strong team with quality all over the park.
It is not only the results that show that this team is special, but also the way that the team is playing. They play a possession-based game that is alien to the traditionally defensive men-behind-the-ball Irish playing style, that we are all too used to seeing from the senior side.
This squad’s change of fortune, as well as playing style, has coincided with the appointment of Stephen Kenny, who will be over this team for this campaign and then take the reigns of the senior team. This will undoubtedly give extra encouragement for players to impress now as a gateway to the senior squad.
However, some of the squad may not even have that long. Current senior manager Mick McCarthy has singled out Aaron Connolly and Midfielder Jayson Molumby for their performances against Armenia. Saying that, if there wasn’t any under-21 matches, he wouldn’t hesitate to bring them into the senior set up. The fact that these players have featured in the EFL Championship and even Premier League gives them more of a case to be involved in the next senior squad in October.
It wouldn’t be surprising if several players from this side were called up. Even in the last extended squad, McCarthy included under-21 players like Troy Parrott, Nathan Collins and Michael Obafembi – so it seems it’s a matter of when and not if for some of this group.
This young team, however, is yet to face its biggest challenge, that being Italy in a months’ time, where we will see how we fare against the best Europe has to offer. The new Irish playing style will be put to the test here and we’ll discover whether it can compare to Brian Kerr’s Euro-winning under-18 side or if it’s just a false dawn. This is an undoubtedly talented side, made up nearly entirely of Irish born players, that want to play and fight for the jersey. However, only time will tell if this golden generation can make the step up that so many think they will – but, there is reason to be hopeful.