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It has been a long time since Ireland last participated in the World Cup finals. This year marks 20 since Ireland’s last appearance at the premier soccer event on the calendar, as they famously reached the round of 16.
Of course, that tournament in South Korea and Japan was contentious for a number of different reasons, which included the fact that Roy Keane walked out on the team before a ball was even kicked.
However, this year, the Irish will once again need to sit back and watch a number of the home nations participate in the World Cup odds, as they failed to make it out of the group stages and set up a shot in a playoff tie. But, what must Ireland do over the coming months and years to ensure that they stand a chance of making it through to the World Cup in 2026?
Build A Younger Squad
One thing that Ireland has constantly been guilty of over the past 20 years is building the national side around older players. That has hindered the progression of some of the brightest players, and meant that the FAI have lost talented players such as Declan Rice and Jack Grealish, who both opted to represent England instead. There is certainly evidence that Stephen Kenny is looking to amend that, as there is a younger field about the squad that played in a recent international fixture against Ukraine.
Players such as Nathan Collins and Dara O’Shea are forming a new defensive partnership, while midfielders such as Jayson Molumby and Jason Knight are both under the age of 25 and playing regularly for their club sides. Ireland also has an exciting crop of younger strikers available these days, which means that Michael Obafemi and Troy Parrott may be given extended runs in the team throughout qualification to get experience playing for Ireland.
The signs at this stage are encouraging, but they must be transferred into positive results in order for Kenny to have the time to try and gain qualification to the World Cup in four years time.
Solid EURO Qualification Campaign
Before the campaign to try and get to the World Cup gets underway, Ireland will first aim to reach the European Championship finals for the third time in four editions of the competition.
Ireland was unlucky in their bid to make it to the Eurostwo years ago, as they eventually fell in the playoff round. However, their record at that stage of the competition has improved in recent efforts, as they managed to get through the playoffs to qualify for both the 2012 and 2016 Euros.
The draw for the qualification campaign is yet to be made, but Ireland will be aware that they will be drawn alongside at least one heavyweight in the European game. Ireland were unfortunate when it came to their World Cup qualification campaign, as they were drawn alongside both Portugal and Serbia. Therefore, they will need a little bit of luck to help them gain qualification to the EUROs, which could help them become a higher seed for the World Cup qualification after the tournament in Germany.
There were positive signs in the previous qualification campaign, as Ireland managed to record draws against Portugal and Serbia, but poor results such as the draw against Azerbaijan and the defeat Luxembourg were ultimately costly in their pursuit of chasing Portugal for the second position in the group.
Those costly defeats have been very evident with Ireland in previous campaign, which has ultimately meant that they haven’t been able to challenge for top two places in the groups. Amending these slip-ups will be a key factor when it comes to qualifying for major tournaments in the future.
Players That Could Have Key Roles
Scoring goals has been a problem for Ireland throughout recent qualification campaigns, and that was evidence once again in World Cup qualification, as they scored just eleven goals in eight games. Among those was a 0-0 draw against Portugal, where Ireland created more than enough chances to land the win.
Limited first team opportunities for Troy Parrott could limit his chances for the national side, which means forwards such as Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly may get more of an opportunity.
Connolly certainly looks to be the future of the national side, as the 21-year-old moved to Venezia on loan to get more minutes after falling down the pecking order at Brighton & Hove Albion. The striker made just four Premier League appearances last term, but impressed on loan at Middlesbrough in the second half of the season, scoring twice in 18 games.
Idah also looks to get more minutes this season with Norwich back in the Championship after impressing towards the end of their Premier League campaign last term. The forward scored his first Premier League goal towards the end of the season, and could be set to be a big player for the Canaries as they search for another promotion back to the top-flight.