AFTER DROPPED points on the road against Luxembourg and Montenegro, as well as a home defeat to Italy, the Irish U21s’ qualification campaign looked in danger of petering out prematurely.
Particularly after the 2-0 defeat by Italy in Tallaght last November, Jim Crawford’s side were entering must-win territory.
And yet they responded accordingly. Since that Italian setback, they have gone on a four-match winning run.
Back-to-back victories over qualification rivals Sweden were followed up by wins in potentially tricky fixtures at home to Bosnia and last night versus Montenegro.
This excellent form has left the Irish team with a great chance of a first-ever U21 major tournament qualification — any result other than a Sweden win against Italy on Thursday will guarantee them second place and a spot in the playoffs at least.
It’s too simplistic to put their resurgence down to one single factor, but Will Smallbone has certainly played a key role in the recent success.
The Southampton youngster missed the disappointing results earlier in the campaign away to Montenegro and Luxembourg.
An ACL injury has hampered his career at both club and international level significantly over the past season and a half.
He already had 12 Premier League appearances under his belt when the setback occurred against Leicester in January of last year.
Partially as a result of the gradual recovery process that such a serious injury tends to entail, Smallbone has made just two top-flight starts and two substitute appearances with the Saints this season.
For Ireland U21s, however, he has quickly become an integral squad member.
The injury problems mean he has played just four of their nine qualifiers so far in the campaign, but the dynamic midfielder has been impressive in every one of them.
During this window, in particular, Smallbone’s importance to the team has been conspicuous.
He scored a brace in the 3-0 win over Bosnia on Friday and last night was another influential display.
With Ireland struggling to create much of note and looking somewhat laboured amid a scoreless first half, the 22-year-old out of nothing found the net with a 41st-minute thunderbolt from the edge of the area that galvanised his side and set up what was ultimately a comfortable win.
#IRLU21 1-0 Montenegro - Will Smallbone scores an absolute screamer to give Ireland the lead.
📱 Updates - https://t.co/DQ7qpQRcX3
📺 Watch - https://t.co/NVrpaW23DL pic.twitter.com/jHueGEvUep— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) June 6, 2022
He also had a hand in the second goal, picking out Eiran Cashin with a pinpoint free-kick, and the Derby youngster’s header across goal was finished with aplomb by Liam Kerrigan.
Crawford reserved high praise for Smallbone afterwards but also urged the player to establish himself as a first-team regular at club level next season.
“He’s another player, he has fantastic ability, he’s an athlete. What we do need to see from Will next season is if he can get a run of games at Southampton or a Championship club, his name has been bandied about. But the more we see of Will, the better he gets because he’s a real talent. For him to play two games, Friday-Monday, in a short space of time was a big ask but he did well and he’s a real asset to the group.”
Of course, a goalscoring midfielder with impressive technical ability is the type of player the Irish senior team could do with at the moment. Does Crawford believe he can keep hold of the youngster if he manages to get that all-important run of games for Southampton?
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“I doubt it. Because that’s how much I think of him. Once he gets settled in his club and plays consistently, there is every chance he’ll get called up [to the senior team] because of what he brings. But I could say that for quite a few of the players there. They’re a great bunch, considering I’m sure people were writing us off at some stage earlier in the group, to work together, to dig out the performances. Sweden here, when Ollie O’Neill scored with the last kick of the game, it shows the character within the group.”
Another player who impressed was man-of-the-match Kerrigan. It was just the UCD youngster’s second cap at U21 level, having made his debut earlier in the campaign at home to Luxembourg.
The Tubbercurry native’s display was all the more impressive when you consider he was left out of the squad entirely for the trip to Sweden in the last international window.
“I always knew Liam had ability,” says Crawford. “But we were going to Sweden to play a different shape. You are saying: ‘Okay, Liam for us would be an out-and-out wide player,’ and we left him out. There are no two ways about it. But I had a phone call with him and I said it to him. But he has come in, has been excellent in training and he has deserved his chance.”
Similarly, Borussia Mönchengladbach youngster Conor Noss has not always been a starter for the 21s during the campaign but acquitted himself well against the Montenegrins.
“I’ve always said about Conor, he’s another one who could get exceptionally good very quickly if he gets playing more regularly. I felt he got tired before we took him off but he was very good, and composed on the ball. But again he is another player who, if he gets first-team football, we will see him really developing into an excellent player. I think he just showed snapshots of what he could do. He makes decent runs, he’s an intelligent footballer.”
Another to catch the eye was debutant Eiran Cashin. There was a lengthy hold-up in paperwork after the English-born defender, who has impressed for Derby County in the Championship this season, declared for Ireland. In the end, though, it proved worth the wait as he looked assured in defence while also registering an assist for Kerrigan’s goal.
“What he brings to training in terms of intensity and aggression and leadership, he brings that into training and he trains the way he plays,” added Crawford. “He was certainly worth it. He’s as proud as anybody putting on the jersey. He had 10 or 11 family members who came today to see his debut and he didn’t disappoint. He is in a nice place now with his football.”
Perhaps the only downside of the evening was the lower-than-expected attendance. 3,126 was the official figure and considering Crawford in the build-up described it as the “biggest game in history” for Ireland U21s, they would have been hoping for a bigger turnout.
“You have to weigh in a lot of things — the kick-off time, the bank holiday weekend. I’m sure there are factors, but we’ll see what happens with the playoff games [if they materialise]. Do you play them in Tallaght Stadium, do you go somewhere else? All that has to be decided. But I do think the group of players here really deserve big crowds.”