The Ireland U-21s’ impressive victory vs Sweden has capped off a successful international break for the Irish last week. The U-21s have made it 3 wins from 3 in their European Championship qualification group. Meanwhile, the Irish senior squad maintained their undefeated qualification record, as they secured a 1-1 draw vs Switzerland.
The current Irish U-21 side have brought a refreshing feeling to the game, for Irish football fans. Stephen Kenny’s side is filled with a whole host of talented prospects. The side also play an attractive brand of football. This makes them much more pleasing to the eye of the modern football fan. The talent and fearless way that this side plays, has made them popular with Irish supporters. Many members of the U-21 squad have already endeared themselves to the Irish faithful.
The recent success of the U-21s is great news for the FAI, and future Irish senior boss, Stephen Kenny. The FAI implemented a ‘succession plan’ for the Irish managerial position. Mick McCarthy, the current Ireland boss, is acting as an experienced head to steer the ship while Kenny gets international, top level experience with the U-21’s.
Fans who are familiar with Kenny’s 20 year managerial career with various Irish clubs, will have been confident in the coach’s ability. However, managing top level, international players is a different game to managing in the Airtricity League. There will have been warranted question marks over Kenny’s suitability for the Ireland job. Kenny’s work with the U-21s will have put many fears to rest, however. The quality of the football being played by Ireland’s U-21s has many fans excitedly anticipating Kenny’s arrival as senior Ireland manager, in 2020.
The Ireland U-21s’ success is undoubtedly a testament to Kenny’s quality as a head coach. However, it is also a sign of the quality of footballer that Ireland are producing at present. Kenny is doing his job with the U-21s, but the squad available to him may be the best Ireland U-21 side in recent memory. It is early days, but the team look destined to qualify for the European Championships. This would make them the first Irish U-21 side to ever qualify for the tournament, failing on 13 other occasions.
In the past, promising players, such as Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, essentially leapfrogged the U-21 level. The new way of handling young footballers, being showcased at present, is exciting for Irish football. We are now giving players such as Troy Parrott, Jayson Molumby and Lee O’Connor the opportunity to develop at their level, grow as footballers and potentially learn to win at international level. It is exciting to think about these players bringing their quality to the Irish first team. However, the best course of action may be to not fast-track them to the senior squad. Instead, we should practice patience with young talents, and allow them to become 100% ready before entering senior international competition.
The Ireland U-21 squad are not the only squad proving the quality of Ireland’s young footballers at present. Ireland’s U-19s have been just as impressive in recent times. Ireland’s U-19 side made it to the semi-final of this past summer’s U-19 European Championships. This is the furthest that Ireland have ever progressed in the U-19 competition. Even more impressive, is that Ireland won every game in the competition, throughout qualifying, up until the semi-finals.
Despite being an annual competition, Ireland reached the semi-finals on just two previous occasions, 2002 and 2011. Ireland’s fellow semi-finalists were France, Portugal and Spain. France’s senior squad are currently World Champions, Portugal’s senior squad are currently European Champions, and Spain have set the standard in world football for over a decade. Ireland’s presence among these three nations is an indication of Ireland’s quality at youth level right now.
Ireland’s U-17 side have been just as, if not more impressive in recent years than even the U-19s and U-21s. Ireland’s U-17s have qualified for the annual U-17 European Championships for the last 3 years. Ireland have reached the quarter-final stage in 2 of the last 3 years of this competition. Previous to their recent run, Ireland only reached the group stage on one previous occasion, 2008. As impressive as their recent form has been, the Ireland U-17s have been unlucky to not get further in the European Championships.
In 2017, Ireland were knocked out in a narrow 1-0 defeat to England due to a goal form one Jadon Sancho. England went on to reach the final of the competition that year. In 2018, Ireland were knocked out in a penalty shoot-out, following a 1-1 draw with the eventual winners of the competition, The Netherlands. While this past year, as hosts, Ireland were eliminated, despite never losing a game. They were knocked out in the group stage, getting 3 draws from 3 games.
It is clear from their performances in international competition in recent years, that we are entering an exciting era for Irish football. The quality of footballer being produced by Ireland at present is up there with the best in Europe. We may currently have our best youth sides since the U-18 side of the late 90s, who were lead by Robbie Keane. The future is bright for Ireland. If Stephen Kenny is capable of harnessing, and getting the most out of the talent that will be available to him in the coming years, Ireland could become a competitive side, once again.