From top: Action during Serbia’s 3-2 defeat of the Republic of Ireland in a World Cup qualifier last month; Luke Brennan
Picture yourself on a beach. Your favourite beach – that sandy bank of childhood memories.
Unusually, it is dark, cold and as you sit down, you find the sand is wet beneath you. You cannot see the water’s edge, the tide is out, only feint silhouettes of rocks and seaweed are visible, the stench is that of a place which is not as it should be.
You hear a radio, tuned to Radio Luxembourg. You don’t like the song they are playing.
You raise your gaze to the heavens, hoping to see some stars, but there are only clouds. As you try and make out their shape, it begins to rain.
You consider again the tide, trying to figure out if it is going out, or on its way in. You cannot tell in the darkness, so you wonder instead when dawn will arrive, but all you can do is wonder; nothing is clear. In fact, you start to forget what the dawn looks like at all.
Welcome, Irish football supporter. They saw the darkest hour is before the dawn, the problem there is, how to know which hour it is darkest? You can only tell that by looking backwards.
Having failed to qualify for another major tournament, can we see any sign that light is on its way?
To give a swift analysis of the Republic of Ireland soccer teams current status, it is this. Eleven matches without a win, five draws and six losses. This last international window was seen as a success of sorts, two competitive losses and a friendly draw with Qatar, as we managed to score 3 goals in 3 games.
Prior to that, the last goal we scored was 8 games ago, to achieve a draw against Bulgaria. There are good years and bad years, but Ireland did not win a single game in 2020, which has not happened in the modern era.
On the goalscoring front, things also improved, in that striker James Collins scored a goal last week. In 2020, we didn’t have any scoring strikers. We did have goals in September 2019 from David McGoldrick and James Collins. If you want to find another goal scored by a forward, you need to go back to John Walters in 2015. It is not uncommon for Ireland to be fielding a strike force with a combined total of zero international goals. Robbie Keane goalscoring record will be safe for a while yet.
Add to that a new manager trying to play an attractive brand of football, while admirable, it needs both the players and the time to transition.
Can we see the light? We can, but we will have to look very, very, very carefully. We may not even see it; we may just have to feel it. Divine it from our waters. Predict it from the stars we cannot see.
But I still think Ireland have a chance of winning the 2030 World cup.
Ireland at a World cup, those bright sunny days. A warm wind blowing through your hair as you laugh with friends, sipping your cold drink, dodging the beachballs. Happiness with the beach tribe. Old songs, sung like an ice-cream van, calling us to let us know the joys are close at hand. Johnny Giles, and the way he might look at you.
To find the positives, we need faith. We have to believe that the glacial rate of young players development may be visible to us if we measure carefully. It would be easy for us to look at the
performance of this season’s Ireland U21 team, missing out on tournament qualification with a loss to Iceland sealing their fate and see that as the final verdict.
However, there are two truths to go with that assumption which must be considered. Firstly, that the U21 team which topped the group during the first half of the campaign was a far superior team to that which played out the latter matches.
The reason for that? Take the best eight players and move them up to the senior squad, the right thing to do for Steven Kenny, but Ireland does not have the strength and depth in underage football to suffer such a loss. Players such as Caoimhin Kelleher, who recently cemented his position as Liverpool’s second choice ‘keeper with a man of the match performance against Ajax in the Champions League.
Dara O’ Shea and Aaron Connolly have established themselves as ‘starters’ in their respective premiership sides. Jayson Molumby has debuted for Brighton and is Stephen Kenny’s current favourite workhorse midfielder, he is not looking out of place in the senior Ireland squad either, a man of the match recipient on his international debut.
If you look further down into the Championship, you not only have players like Nathan Collins and Jason Knight playing for their sides, but a few months back they both scored winning goals while captaining their respective sides. So not just playing for their sides, leading the way, both at just nineteen years of age.
This brings us to the second fact is that Ireland were not so much in possession of a great U21 team, but a spectacular U19 team with a few older players. The vast majority of the players are young enough to qualify for the 2023 U21 squad. They will be a hardened, determined, capable group with all the experience they require in the next campaign.
If you wanted a way to measure this glacial growth, you’ll need a measuring stick. Have a look at the players eligible to play in Ireland’s U21 team next year, there are weeks when you can count a full team of Irish teenagers in match day squads for Premiership or Championship sides. True, some of them are warming the benches, but just a few years ago, it was a struggle to make a similar team from the senior internationals.
There is also a blight of injuries. I counted 15 players which couldn’t turn out for Ireland’s 2-1 U21 win over Wales this week, but we still won. Between senior call ups and injuries, the players unavailable for that match are the best Ireland U21 team to ever not line up for Ireland.
Those missing include the calls ups to the full international squad: Gavin Bazunu, Troy Parrot, Aaron Connolly, Jason Knight, Conor Coventry and Dara O’Shea. Then there are the obvious injured: Adam Idah, Will Smallbone, Michael Obafemi, Nathan Collins, all thought to be premiership stars of the future.
Then there are the highly rated surprise possibilities. Young Mipo Odupeko has already made his West Ham senior debut, but was rested, so did not make the Irish squad. Jordan McEneff is a highly rated Arsenal reserve player on his way back from injury. Ryan Cassidy has had his Watford contract extended but is currently injured on loan at Accrington Stanley.
Then there is John Joe Patrick Finn. His late father is from Ballyhaunis, his mother a Cameroonian model: He plays football for Getafe in La Liga (Spanish top tier) and is wanted by both Spanish and English FAs. It looks like he’s opting for Ireland, most likely because Ireland U21 Boss Jim Crawford and Stephen Kenny convinced him in a personalised zoom presentation.
I am sure they told him that we were not perfect, nor the best. But we are Ireland, and a family; that we think you will fit well into that. One advantage of U21 squad being plundered by the senior squad, is that they could point to the pathway which has been created.
So that’s the team that didn’t make it to Wales last week. They are backed up by a full squad that made it there and won. It included two players who have already made it to Senior International camps (Lee O’Connor and Luca Connell), plus Jonathan Afolabi who was included in the team of the tournament when this Ireland team made it to the semi-final of the U19 European Championship. The remainder have mostly played senior football at some level – Premiership, Championship or League One.
The Imperious Mark McGuinness, an Arsenal centre back on loan at Ipswich looks like a modern-day Tony Adams. Andrew Omabomidele made his senior debut for Norwich in the championship last week and got a deserved man of the match award (Whisper it, but if you look at the game’s highlights, you will see he his play has a pearly quality).
The good news is that when this group do come together for their first Euro U21 qualifier in September, the injury list should be greatly reduced. By a wonderful turn of co-incidence, there is a very special prize available to them if they do qualify. If they reach the semi-finals of that competition, they qualify as an Irish team in the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Did you know that the Irish free state soccer team was first represented in the 1924 Paris Olympics? The Irish Free State, sovereign, barely born and still in chaos, entered a team in the FIFA organised Olympic competition. Imagine that? The centenary year in the city where it all began, in the same competition.
This makes me think of my late father, born in Glasthule in 1916, at 8 years of age in 1924. He lost his father to the Civil War, his family then moved back into his mother’s family home with his grandparents and 9 uncles. His (Weafer) uncles had lined out for the newly formed Edenville football team in the Leinster Senior League: my father had memories of making his pocket-money polishing the team’s football boots.
Different times, right? But think about what it would mean, in those difficult and uncertain times, to have a national soccer team. Hearing that Ireland beat Bulgaria 1-0 in Paris; it must have been special. We wouldn’t mind a 1-0 win over anyone some time soon, either.
Edenville passed on it’s distinctive Black and White shirt stripes to St.Joseph’s Glasthule, which gave them to St.Joseph’s Boys. Or Joeys, as they are known. They continue to produce international players today, including Jonathan Afolabi and Mipo Odebuko in this current U21 squad.
Note: If anyone wants to know more about Ireland’s first football team, you should check out this article by Ireland’s most fascinating sports historian, Paul Rouse, here.
Luke Brennan is an Ireland born, Portugal-based writer, entrepreneur and sports fan.
Pic: Inside Qatar