It is approaching the 20th anniversary of Brian Kerr first catching the imagination of the Irish public for spearheading a surge to the semi-finals of the U20 World Cup in Malaysia. The following year he surpassed that feat by delivering double gold at the U16 and U18 Euros.
O’Brien worked with Kerr during his time with the FAI and is eager to ensure his charges appreciates the historical connections of Ireland with underage tournaments. Obsessing about it in the lead-up to this crucial opener was not on the agenda, however, and he believes the present crew have enough about them to write their own chapter.
“The players are well aware of how previous tournaments went for Irish teams, including the side which won it in 1998, but they’ve to concentrate on the present,” he said.
“They know what’s at stake without overloading it. We have to be very balanced because we’re not like a Spain and Germany by qualifying for the Euros every year.
“We’ve already come through two qualifying groups and we’ll treat this one as the same, albeit the quality will be that bit higher. They’re well prepared and just want to get on with it now.”
An early ploy to that preparation began before the first ball was kicked and it has stuck with the squad. Martin O’Neill accepted an invite from O’Brien to address his players and it was interesting to note the monologue developed into dialogue.
“We’ve a few boys in our group who are well able to ask some questions,” the former Cork City winger said last night at the team’s scenic base in Opatija. “To be fair, before this adventure started with the first phase qualifiers last October, Martin was very good to oblige us.
“He brought the conversation down to their level but it was a great experience for them to hear advice of the senior international manager.”
Rather than being the quintessential Serbian team of style, O’Brien pinpoints a physical dimension to this particular crew from the nearby Balkan neighbour.
“They can be very direct and good at set-pieces,” he warned. “They’ve a very good striker too but we’ve identified a few areas where we can get at them too.”
Centre-back Nathan Collins will attempt to follow in the family footsteps by guiding Ireland to the knockout stages and, with it, potentially a place at the World Cup in India later this year.
“My dad David and uncle Eamonn both captained Ireland at the Youth World Cup years ago and I’d love to play at that stage too,” said the Stoke City-bound 16-year-old.
“Our team won all six games in qualifying over two different rounds so we’ve got to be confident.”
B Maher (St Patrick’s Athletic); L O’Connor (Manchester Utd), J Doherty (Sheffield Utd), N Collins (Stoke City), K Ledwidge (St Kevin’s Boys); A Bolger (Shamrock Rovers), L Nolan (St Patrick’s Athletic); G Kilkenny (Bournemouth); R Roache (Blackpool), A Idah (Corinthian Boys); A Connolly (Brighton & Hove Albion).
Brian Maher (St Patrick’s Athletic), Kian Clarke (Bohemians).
Lee O’Connor (Manchester United), Kameron Ledwidge (St Kevin’s Boys), Nathan Collins (Cherry Orchard), Jordan Doherty (Sheffield United), Daryl Walsh (Waterford FC), Joe Redmond (Birmingham City).
Aaron Bolger (Shamrock Rovers), Luke Nolan (St Patrick’s Athletic), Brandon Kavanagh (Bohemians), Richard O’Farrell (St Patrick’s Athletic), Gavin Kilkenny (Bournemouth), Callum Thompson (Wolverhampton Wanderers).
Rowan Roache (Blackpool), Adam Idah (College Corinthians), Aaron Connolly (Brighton & Hove Albion), Tyreik Wright (Lakewood AFC)