After more than 30 years of hurt and failure, just 180 minutes of football now stands between the Republic of Ireland’s U-21 side and a place at Europe’s top table.
And with the bonus of having a switched-on and focused senior international like Aaron Connolly (inset) in the side, a batch of other players who are in Stephen Kenny’s thoughts in terms of elevation to bigger things, and a hoped-for full house at Tallaght Stadium, the ingredients are there for Jim Crawford’s side to make that final push. Get past Israel and they are into the Euro 2023 finals.
“It’s 17 attempts to get this far with the 21s. I think that’s 34 years of playing U-21s football and this is the furthest we’ve got,” says Crawford, ahead of the home game in the two-legged play-off.
“We’re two games away from a place in the finals. So it’s unchartered territory. We can enjoy the experience but it’s about taking that next step. Hopefully, the players that are picked can get us one foot over the line in the first leg and then it’s going to be another challenge beating Israel in their home.
“You have got to manage the occasion, no matter what the scoreline is. There is still another game that you’ve got to play and it’s going to be even more of a difficult challenge away from home.
“But we are hoping that we can have a packed stadium that will get behind the players and give them the momentum and give us that little bit of advantage that we’ll need. It’s a big occasion, but players have got to learn.”
With an Irish record of 26 U-21 caps under his belt, captain Conor Coventry will lead things in midfield but a lot will depend on Connolly, back in the U-21s for the first time in three years as he drops down a level after senior duty.
Connolly has admitted in recent interviews that he has attracted – unfairly in his eyes – question marks over his commitment. But the fact that the Italy-based Galwayman opted to join the U-21s, instead of snubbing that to wait for a senior call, is a big boost for Crawford.
“I’d imagine it’ll be difficult for him,” Crawford says of Connolly, capped eight times at senior level but omitted from recent senior squads.
“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’, so his focus now is with the 21s and I’m delighted to have him, particularly with the attitude and the ability he brings.”
Crawford knows that some of this crop will be called up by Kenny for senior friendlies in November, and should the U-21s reach the finals next June, Kenny could also be looking for the likes of Coventry, Evan Ferguson and Will Smallbone.
For now, Crawford has to plug a hole in his defence with the injury-enforced absence of Mark McGuinness. New recruit Finn Azaz has impressed in training, with Con Dawson Devoy and Festy Ebosele also looking to start.
Little is known around these parts about Israel, with the vast majority of their squad attached to Israeli clubs. Their record in qualifying was patchy, with a defeat to lowly Latvia. But a wary Crawford notes that the game there is on the up: “They are on the crest of a wave at the minute”.
Ireland U-21s v Israel U-21s
Live, RTÉ2, 7.0