Jim Crawford is looking forward to the challenge; to see if his new crop of Irish U21s can finally qualify for a European Championships. The June 2023 U21s Euros will take place again without Ireland, having missed out in heartbreaking fashion in September losing a Play-off penalty shoot out to Israel.
Progress has been made; Ireland were the 2nd seeds in Thursdays draw for the 2025 Euros, hopes were high that a favourable draw would be secured.
Ireland must now overcome Italy, for the third consecutive campaign, Norway, Turkey, Latvia and San Marino to qualify. The U21 Qualifying fixture dates have yet to be confirmed but Crawford has confirmed there will not be competitive games in March.
The draw gives Ireland an unenviable task; Crawford is realistic, securing “a couple of points from the Italy games may well put us in a similar position we were in come the last game of the previous campaign”. That saw Ireland head to Italy in 2022 with a play off spot secured; knowing a win would seal automatic qualification. Alas it was not to be and a Play Off beckoned.
Crawford, his assistants John O’Shea and Alan Reynolds, have been rewarded for their work with the U21s, all agreeing contract extensions up to the end of the 2025 qualifying campaign. Crawford was not unduly worried about the contract situation; he’s rightly proud of his U21 tenure to date, which has seen Ireland rise to 19 in the rankings – the highest ever at that age grade. He’s also seen Stephen Kenny fast track many of his most talented players to the Senior team, which for a player pool of the size of Irelands, makes it difficult for the U21s.
The under-21 boss sees his role very much as developing players from his age group for the senior team, working closely with Tom Mohan (U19s) and Senior Manager Stephen Kenny. The fact is, from the current senior group, Gavin Bazunu, Andrew Omobamidele, Festy Ebosele, Troy Parrott are all eligible for the next U21s campaign. Perhaps with the exception of Festy, it’s unlikely the others named will play for the U21s such has been the rate of their progress in establishing themselves within the senior ranks. We’ve not even mentioned 18 Year Old Evan Ferguson.
Crawford has a real affinity and close relationship with his charges; from the last campaign he has seen the likes of Captain Conor Coventry, Lee O’Connor, Will Smallbone and Aaron Connolly all move on, no longer eligible for the age grade.
Failure to qualify for Euro 2023 hit the group hard, there was “a great deal of disappointment and tears” in Tel Aviv when the campaign came to an end, the harsh realities of international football exposed for all to see. The Dubliner reflected on how close they had come, an achievement in some sense, but also lamented on “sloppy goals” conceded against Italy when Ireland had put themselves in the wonderful position of knowing if they secured a win they would be heading to the Euros.
Crawford stays in touch with his players; even though they may no longer be eligible for the U21s and may not yet have progressed to Senior Level. He’s a reassuring presence in their footballing development and evidently cares passionately about them as human beings, not just as footballers. He saw Conor Coventry step up as a leader of his team on and off the pitch, an “outstanding Captain”, and saw his players challenge and ask questions of each other, “are you ready to do what is needed to play for Ireland?”
The door is never closed. Aaron Connolly was brought back in for Septembers Play Off; an extremely talented addition to the squad coming back in from a brief flirtation with the Seniors, Crawford hopes his recent goals for Hull will see him settle down and “turn things around”. As keen observers, we know there is a player there, we just need to see him kick on now and let his football do the talking.
Crawford will now be tasked with bringing through new players into the squad, integrating them in with some of the players who played in Tel Aviv. He has to select a new captain “I won’t name names as I’ve to speak to him first and have him in mind”. He’s spoken to many of his players since Tel Aviv, there’s been lots of phone calls “international football is challenging, it was tough to take” and post game there’s a “big break from when we last played to when we meet up again”. Thankfully most went back to their clubs and settled back into the rigmarole of regular football, some have recently secured club moves seeking more match day minutes.
Some of the U19s, who are set to compete in their own qualifiers, are in mind and eligible for the U21s but Crawford would prefer for them to play at their own age grade within the elite phase in March, rather than call them up for the two expected U21 Friendlies. One of those is set against Iceland at Turners Cross on 26th March, the first chance to bring new players in, unite with and reset those still eligible from the last campaign and set the tone and expectation for the qualifiers before they start in earnest. He’s developing footballers, professionals, and finds the players keen to learn.
He is planning to arrange a June training camp in Spain, although one also suspects he will be casting an envious eye on the 2023 Euros taking place in Romania and Georgia in the same month. With both Italy and Norway participating, many of those players taking part, will still be eligible when they come to take on Ireland.
And so to Evan! Crawford says that ever since he brought Evan Ferguson in to the squad, he’s just “seen further and further improvement. Physically he was ready, didn’t look out of place, is focused and clinical technically in shooting drills. He’s calm and comfortable and not at all phased even when he went into the environment of the Seniors”. The FAI coaches at all levels engage and discuss players progress, especially those who impress.
We’ve had promising players over the recent years and Crawford believes that to be able to succeed in football and progress from a “prodigy” to “making it” you need to have an “almost bullet proof mentality, live right, train right, be assertive and not afraid to engage with coaches to seek to improve”. As a coach Crawford welcomes engagement with his players, who want to learn, review tapes and clips of their own performances and those of the opposition. Of course you need the “lucky breaks” as well. Crawford believes Ferguson has all of the aforementioned attributes “plus the positive support network of a great family, but he will need time to develop”.
Crawford is always keen to develop, reflect and get the edge; after the last campaign the squad were asked to give their feedback on their U21 experience, the consensus overwhelmingly coming back that “players love meeting up and playing for Ireland”.
As he, his backroom staff and players embark on the 2025 qualifying campaign Crawford wants to “bring the Irish public on the same journey as the last campaign” albeit one hopes that at the end of this one we will achieve that long awaited qualification.
Martin Prendergast, The Green Machine Podcast
Chairman of RISSC London