The quiet city of Ascoli was the scene for the unhappiest spell of Liam Brady’s playing career, a dark cloud over an otherwise stellar time in Italy.
Fittingly, that outpost (population the same as that of Waterford city) is not all that accessible for Irish tourists. Ireland U21 team manager Jim Crawford, visiting last month on a reccie ahead of Tuesday’s European Championship qualifier against Italy, joked that the twisty roads between the nearest airport and the match venue turned the simple drive into a three-hour slog.
International football has been a slog for the Republic of Ireland’s U21s ever since their first competitive game at that level, back in 1986, with 17 failed attempts to qualify for the European Championship finals, or other fringe benefits like a backdoor route into the Olympic games via the Euros.
That could all change in Ascoli. Crawford’s side’s fate is in their own hands: regardless of the result, Ireland are guaranteed a place in the play-offs for the 2023 Euro finals, due to be held in Romania and Georgia next year, while a win will secure automatic qualification.
“The way it’s set up, with us guaranteed a play-off, changes nothing, we’re going there to win the game,” says Derry City man Brian Maher, first choice goalkeeper under Crawford.
“We know we can make history but that sense of history is not pressure, it’s driving us on, it’d be an honour to be part of the first-ever Irish U21 group to qualify.”
It’s so rare for Ireland to be here, in the conversation at U21 level. The Republic have been to World Cup and European Championship finals at senior men’s level, won U16 and U18 European titles, finished third in the World Cup at U20 level. But U21 football has been what a former CEO could call the problem child of international football, the U21 side under-funded and unloved, often used just as a tool for getting dual-eligibility players into the Irish fold, no matter how good or bad they were.
When Mick McCarthy was appointed manager in 1996, he wanted the FAI to employ his assistant, Ian Evans, on a full-time basis, but the penny-pinching association would only do so if Evans also did the U21 job, as Maurice Setters had done under Jack Charlton.
Starting off in 1986, Ireland finished bottom of their group in the first three campaigns, endured an 8-0 defeat to Germany, then managed a couple of mid-table finishes in the mid-1990s before a wooden spoon again (for the finals in 2009 and 2011). Through the spells under Don Givens, Noel King and Stephen Kenny, a third-place finish was the most they could hope for, often suffering worse (in the five campaigns between 2004 and 2011, the Republic finished in the bottom two in the qualifiers).
The U21s made a decent stab at qualification in the last campaign, where Crawford took over from Stephen Kenny in the middle of the group stage, only to fall short.
It looked as if this campaign would also end in failure: after a return of seven points from the first three games, prospects were gloomy after back to back defeats, away to Montenegro and at home to Italy, last year. Wins at home and away to Sweden got the campaign back on track, last week’s defeats of Bosnia and Montenegro made it four successive wins, and now it’s teed up for the Republic: win in Ascoli and they qualify, fail to win and they have a play-off in September
“People had us written off when we lost at home to Italy but we never gave up,” says Maher.
“Italy are a good side, top seeds for a reason, we respect them but we don’t fear them, we’ll have our homework done and then on Tuesday we’ll do our work on the pitch, hopefully qualify for the Euros.”
The current crop is a mixture that says a lot about modern Ireland, as Irish-born players of African heritage (JJ Kayode, Tayo Adaramola) mix well with Anglos (Derby defender Eiran Cashin, eligible through a Leitrim grandparent, made his debut last week), current and former League of Ireland players, and a German/Irish recruit, impressive Borussia Monchengladbach man Conor Noss. “There’s a good mix, we’re from different backgrounds but we all want the same, to do well for Ireland,” says Dubliner Maher.
If it is a play-off, things could be interesting in September: the Nations League fixtures are set for the end of that month, the U21 play-offs down for the first week of September. That could free up the players who have missed recent U21 games due to senior duty (Gavin Bazunu, Andrew Omobamidele, Nathan Collins, Troy Parrott, Adam Idah, Jason Knight) to come back to the U21s. The challenge on Tuesday is to make sure that dilemma doesn’t occur, by winning automatic qualification.