Three years ago Ireland U-21 midfielder Joe Hodge seemed to be riding the crest of a wave.
Then, aged 16, he started all four of Ireland’s U-19 Euro group stage games as they made it to the semi-finals. Two months earlier the midfielder also featured in all three of Ireland’s U-17 Euro group games which were played on home soil.
At the time he was at Manchester City’s academy before being loaned to Derry City in February last year, but suffered a back injury days before the new season began.
He left the Candystripes without having played a game, before signing for Wolves in August of last year, where he has since made 17 appearances for their U-21 side.
“It’s about three years now since I’ve played for Ireland through injury, Covid and building my way back to fitness,” said Hodge, who made his U-21 debut in Thursday’s 1-1 draw against Israel, in the Euro 2023 play-off first leg.
“It’s great to be back. I’m a different player from when I was 16. It was good back then but I have to start over and forget about that. I didn’t play anywhere near as many games as I would have liked to, which didn’t help me one bit. It was tough, but it toughens you up.
“It’s just getting knocked down and going again. I’m fit and playing the best football I have in ages now.”
Last week’s first leg at Tallaght Stadium was remarkably Hodge’s first qualifier for Ireland, having only played in Euro finals or friendlies beforehand.
Jim Crawford’s side travel to Tel Aviv for tomorrow’s second leg, with the Young Boys in Green potentially one game away from making history.
Hodge knows how it feels to play at a major tournament, and he insists his side have nothing to fear in the second leg.
“I never played in the qualifiers for either tournament (U-19 and U-17), but the experience was brilliant,” Hodge said.
“To showcase ourselves and show what we can do against the best teams in Europe. We are one game away from it now, so hopefully we can get there.
“I was in the U-21 squad in the summer, so I was hopeful I’d get the nod, especially because I’ve played more games since then back at Wolves. I was delighted when I found out, it’s where I want to be.
“It’s been a long campaign, I’ve not been involved in all of it, but I can see what it means to the lads, how hard they have worked to get here. It means everything to me, it’s a huge opportunity. We have never qualified before so to do it would be brilliant.
“We’re not getting ahead of ourselves. It’s only half the job done, so we have to go there and put another good performance in.”
The Manchester native also praised the impact of senior outcast Aaron Connolly, who made his first U-21 start in three years in Tallaght. The striker, who has won eight senior caps, was a thorn in Israel’s side and picked up the man-of-the-match award on Thursday.
“I thought Aaron was brilliant, running in behind constantly and causing their centre-halves problems all night. It’s a great out-ball to have. He’s a top player and he showed that.”