After his unveiling as Irish boss, Martin O’Neill spoke of unearthing a hidden 17-year-old gem that would take the Irish team by storm. When naming his squad to face Serbia, the Derryman lamented that he had yet to find one, but when Noel King’s U21s take on Montenegro in a vital Euro qualifier, it could be teenage kicks that get the Republic through the night.
“The idea that I had, that maybe some young 17-year-old would come through and be absolutely brilliant for us in the next couple of months, I haven’t exactly seen that. Of course there’s time, like anything else.” Those were manager O’Neill’s words but with the Republic’s U21s involved in a must-win game against Montenegro, Noel King has named plenty of fresh faces in the ranks. The senior boss may be reluctant to poach the young guns aiming to fire Ireland to the finals in the Czech Republic.
King can call on the experience of captain Shane Duffy and Derby County’s returning midfielder Jeff Hendrick, capped four times at senior level, but the caretaker coach before O’Neill’s appointment is prepared to give youth a chance in the quest for qualification.
Jack Grealish continues to make headlines at Notts County while manager King has included a host of other youngsters such as Mikey Drennan, Kenny McEvoy and Pierce Sweeney.
Eighteen-year-old Grealish, on loan from Aston Villa, has five goals in 27 appearances for Notts County. The highly thought-of winger has played underage for Ireland since U15 level but that hasn’t stopped England pursuing the Birmingham native.
He’s already featured for the Republic U21s in this campaign, making his début last August at just 17-years of age, and manager King has tipped him for a very bright future. Ireland’s U-17 player of the year in 2012, Grealish has been likened to Cristiano Ronaldo by some Villa observers.
Kenny ‘Baby Bale’ McEvoy is a new face in the U21’s, earning a first call-up having made the Tottenham Hotspur bench in the recent Europa league tie. The 19-year-old Waterford winger scored seven goals in nine appearances in the U18 Premier League in 2012-13 and three goals in three games in the FA Youth Cup. This earned him promotion to the Spurs u21 side for whom he netted three times.
Fellow new-comer to King’s squad is Reading’s Pierce Sweeney. Signed from Bray Wanderers, the centre-back has featured regularly for the Royal’s U21 side and has already made the senior bench in 2014.
Grealish’s Villa Park club-mate Mikey Drennan is another youngster in the Irish U21s whose got bags of goals in his locker. The Kilkenny striker just turned 20 at the beginning of February and scored on his début for Portsmouth when sent out on loan at the end of last month. Drennan finished as joint top scorer in Aston Villa’s title-winning Next Gen series last year despite sustaining a foot injury in the latter stages that sidelined him for 9 months.
Another player looking to make his début in Tallaght is Watford’s Tommie Hoban. The central defender has captained the Irish u19s and was named his club’s Young Player of the Season in 2013.
King’s team are joint-second in Group 6, alongside Montenegro, and must take three points to stay on course for a play-off, with a daunting away tie in Germany to come.
Qualification would represent a massive boost at an age-level where Ireland have struggled, but either way, Martin O’Neill may not have to look as far as first thought in his search for emerging Irish talent.
Ireland U-21s take on Montenegro at Tallaght Stadium on Wednesday. Kick off 15:00