Ryan Kilbane explores how the Ireland under 21s win against Sweden can show the blueprint for a potential future.
It was a day of two 3-1 victories one after the other which meant that Ireland’s senior and under 21 team finished their September round of fixtures on a high.
Stephen Kenny’s young guns battled from behind to claim an excellent victory away from home against Sweden, two goals from Spurs man Troy Parrot helping them on their way. In Dublin almost directly after, Mick McCarthy’s men eventually swatted aside an out-of-sorts Bulgaria by the same score. Jack Byrne impressed and there were first goals at international level for James Collins, Kevin Long and Alan Browne. A good night all round for the Boys in Green.
The scoreline is where the comparisons end however. The Bulgaria game was very much a friendly and while the result was positive, it is immaterial really. In contrast the victory in Kalmar was a qualifier of real importance against an opponent of at least equal quality. This result will only add to the growing hype around this crop of young players and their manager.
The interesting part of the under 21s game was not just the quality of the goals themselves but rather the attitude to not settle for a 1-1 draw – a stark contrast to what we are used to at senior level. It has become our textbook result now whenever we play a team on our level or slightly above, to the point that it has become memefied. Sometimes we might take the lead sometimes we might concede first, regardless of the process the end result seems almost always the same.Embed from Getty Images
After starting well, the 21s found themselves behind following a powerful long range strike from Bologna midfielder Matthais Svanberg on 19 minutes and the home side probably had the better of the first half play from then on in. The second half was a different story and it was the introduction of Troy Parrot on the 51st minute which seemed to be the catalyst.
Ireland dominated and they were unlucky not to be level when Aaron Connolly’s great work down the left won a penalty but unfortunately his spot kick was saved by Watford goalkeeper Pontus Dahlberg. This was after Ireland had already put the ball in the Swedish net but Jonathan Afolabi was adjudged to have used his hand in the process so the goal was rightly chalked off.
They never lost their nerve, continuing to control the ball and probe their opponents. Eventually the equaliser came on the 69th minute. Good hold up play and a lay off from Afalobi set up Parrot who rifled the ball into the top of the net.
There has been a lot of hype about this group of players and Stephen Kenny as a manager. It feels like the inception of a new era for Irish football and it’s what proceeded to happen after that goal that gives cause for genuine optimism.
“We may just look back to this result as the starting point of the Kenny era.”
The senior team have been competitive if somewhat limited in recent times, generally at our best when we play more cautiously especially when the opposition have scored and have something to protect. We saw it against Switzerland but it was also present in the last campaign against Austria at home, content with a draw Ireland barely attack until we go behind and when we do score, we revert to type and hold out for the draw, an inability to control games that has dogged us for years.
We have generally qualified on the back of drawing with our rivals and them dropping points against other opponents in the group (see Georgia 2019 and 2015) which can work, but anytime your relying on external factors like that then your plan can never be full proof.
Kenny’s side showed no such caution. Not content with the draw and still with ample time on the clock, they continued to play as they had before; short passes, built from the back through midfield and to the danger men up front. They never dropped back and put ten men behind the ball. By asserting control of the game they not only scored a further two but also limited Sweden to very few chances themselves. A far cry from the senior side parking the bus to defend a lead heading clearing and tackling everything that moves only for the opposition to come straight back with another wave of attack a la Russia away when Richard Dunne almost single-handedly won us a point we never deserved.Embed from Getty Images
Recent QPR recruit Conor Masterson showed no sign of a post-Liverpool hangover when he headed Ireland in the lead in the 87th minute before 17-year-old Parrot scored his second of the night with a beautiful chip after a rapid counter attack while the home side threw everything forward in the hope of an equaliser – Jason Molumby collecting the assist with a perfectly weighted through ball to the Spurs man.
After the match Kenny spoke about the “courage” the players showed. It is something we have heard numerous times about Irish teams but you get the impression that it was not in the rough and tumble traditional way we think of courage. Rather it is showing courage in possession and to stick to your principles.
Sure it’s one game and one comeback but there’s reason to believe that this is not a fluke. Kenny has previous in this department. His Dundalk side in 2016 broke the mould for how League of Ireland teams should play in Europe with their performances and results against teams such as Bate Borisov, AZ Alkmaar and M Tel Aviv and it seems he’s bringing that innovative philosophy to the national team.
We have been conditioned to think that if it had been senior sides of present or recent past they would have shut up shop and been happy to come away with a point against a rival and on the face of it wouldn’t have been a bad result.
It’s true that we have to make some allowances in that is a particularly strong crop of players but the early signs show that Stephen Kenny will be able to bring us to the next level and turn those draws into victories and if not he will be at least trying to. If he does go on to bring success to the senior team we may just look back to this result as the starting point of the Kenny era.
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