'It's going to be tough' - Darren Randolph urges Ireland to build on Euro 2016 confidence
Darren Randolph has urged his Republic of Ireland team-mates to take the confidence they gained at Euro 2016 into the quest for World Cup qualification at the dawn of a new era.
Five days after paying a fond farewell to the nation's record cap-holder and goalscorer Robbie Keane as he drew the curtain on an 18-year international career, the Republic will embark upon their latest mission with a tough trip to Serbia on Monday evening.
They will head for Belgrade with manager Martin O'Neill having signalled something of a changing of the guard in France during the summer with senior men Keane, Shay Given - both of whom have now retired from international duty - and John O'Shea playing only supporting roles as a new generation of leaders came to the fore.
The victory over Italy which secured Ireland's passage to the knockout stage in France and their spirited display against the hosts in the last 16 have given cause for optimism, and Randolph for one believes that is justified as they prepare to go into battle with the Serbs, Wales, Austria, Moldova and Georgia.
He said: "It's a tough group, but it was the same in France and we performed well. We have the experience from the last group at the Euros. It's a two-year campaign, lots of games.
"It's going to be tough, but we should go into it with a lot of confidence.
"It [Serbia] is a tough place to go, they're a good young team. But it's going to be a good test for us. I don't know if there are going to be many tougher places to go to play in the games.
"But again, we go there full of confidence and looking to put on a good performance and get off to a good start in the group."
As the Republic's stalwarts edged their way into the wings during the summer, their successors moved into centre-stage.
Full-back Seamus Coleman, midfielders James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick and winger and emergency full-back Robbie Brady all announced themselves to a European audience with Coleman ending the tournament as captain and Brady as a potential regular match-winner.
Asked if he could see the formation of a new generation of leaders, Randolph said: "Yes. They are getting their chances and they have shown they are more than capable.
"I am looking forward to hopefully one, two, three of them grabbing it by the scruff of the neck and really making their place in the team their own."
However, Irish excitement will be tempered somewhat in the coming days with several of those men major doubts for the game in Belgrade.
Coleman has not kicked a ball for club Everton this season because of an ankle injury, although the indications this week have been positive, while reports have suggested McCarthy is to undergo surgery to address a groin problem and will be unavailable and with central defender Shane Duffy suspended following his sending-off against France, O'Neill may have to ring the changes.
That, coupled with Keane's absence from the dressing room after 10 years as captain, could have an effect, although full-back Stephen Ward is confident there is enough quality and leadership in the camp to plug the gap.
Ward said: "We have always had big characters in the squad. Obviously it's going to be tough without Robbie, but we have got a lot of good experience lads and a blend of youth coming through who are big characters themselves.
"I think it's a good blend with a good management staff leading us from the top and we are raring to go from Monday."
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