Ireland’s slow starters have become fast learners. And one of the newer faces on the international scene, Jason Knight, says the side have to sustain their end-of-campaign form and carry that into the Nations League qualifiers and then the road to Euro 2024.
At the start of Stephen Kenny’s reign as manager, the unwanted records stacked up: run without a goal scored, run without a win, run of games without a clean sheet. Now, with four clean sheets in a row, back-to-back away wins, six games unbeaten and just one defeat in ten, there’s an awareness that the next campaign, which kicks off with Nations League games in June, can’t afford to have the same stuttering start.
“Consistency,” says Knight when asked what the side need to bring to the table. “I think we have seen progression as we have gone through the campaign. I think it is just about keeping that going and bringing that forward and trying to get the best out of the squad that we can.
“We just want to look forward, we have had a really good last four or five months and we just want to keep progressing into the March camp now. We always want to improve and keep improving. Obviously there were periods [against Luxembourg] when they had the ball and we had the ball. It was quite even in parts but I think as the game went on we came into it a lot more. We showed our fitness and showed our quality towards the end.”
Derby man Knight is one of the young players who has been forced to grow up, international football-wise, in public.
He was blooded at a very rough time. When he made his senior debut, away to Finland in the Nations League, he came into a side which, including his debut in Helsinki, had gone four games without a goal scored, and had just been knocked out of Euro 2020.
The beginning of the World Cup campaign, which began with Knight in the starting XI away to Serbia, was more of the same, as progression from the comfort of U-21 football to the senior side was not easy.
“It is obviously a step up, going from the U-21s to the [senior] national team, but it has been great. Obviously the manager has been really, really good with us young players, bringing us in and not afraid to play us in these big games. It’s been a step up, but it is something I am relishing and I have tried to grasp.
“A lot of senior players have been really, really good to us. Obviously the staff as well, but the senior players have done their best to try to integrate us as well and look after us in that sense.
“It’s just about making an impact when you come on or when you are called up to start and I think it is just down to the staff and the manager himself creating a really competitive squad and making sure that we are all ready when we do have to come on,” says Knight, who played a major role off the bench in the win in Luxembourg as he had a hand in all three goals.
“It was a great night for myself, obviously. I want to add more goals and more assists to my game. I got a couple of assists there so I just want to keep improving and really progress in my game as well,” he said.
“Obviously I have got nine caps now so I am delighted to play as much as I have done. But I just want to keep playing and keep improving a lot more and hopefully get my chance a lot more.”