Stephen Kenny insists his high-flying Ireland U21s won’t settle for a draw from tomorrow’s Euro qualification test against Italy.
The Italians will come to Tallaght Stadium with €100m worth of talent but Ireland have soared under the stewardship of Kenny and won’t be daunted by the top seeds. Ireland are aiming to make it four wins on the spin in the campaign.
“I wouldn’t accept a point now if it was offered to me,” Kenny asserted.
“Why wouldn’t we be confident? We’ve got really good midfield players and forwards who can score goals. Italy are strong but we’ve got a lot of attributes and we mustn’t diminish that.
We must back ourselves. These young players have captured the imagination of the Irish football public.
“We should never take that for granted. This is a new generation of players. They want to make their mark, have great pride in playing for their country and are eager to do well. Who is to say we won’t?’
Certainly nobody within the camp is dampening that expectation. Conor Coventry, an ever-present midfielder in the Stephen Kenny’s side, is convinced they can stay on track to reach a first-ever major U21 tournament.
“Nothing else but a win has crossed our minds really,” said the West Ham United playmaker. “There will be no sitting back — we’ll go and play our game and try and impose ourselves on them.”
They will do so without their raiding winger Aaron Connolly, who both Kenny and Coventry wished well. Kenny wasn’t surprised to see Mick McCarthy’s number flashing up on his phone on Saturday evening after Connolly’s brace for Brighton and Hove Albion against Tottenham Hotpsur.
“I knew I was in trouble when Aaron was in Brighton’s starting team,’ said Kenny about the Galwegian’s first Premier League start. Then, he went and scored two goals. How dare he!
“Mick gave me a call later to say Aaron was going with the seniors. Look, I’m delighted for him because it’s progression.
“I’m not just saying that. As much as we want to achieve at U21 level, the ultimate ambition for players is to represent their country at senior level. That’s our common goal in the FAI.”
Likewise, Coventry wasn’t looking at the downside of losing his first teammate from this generation. He only hopes to be part of the next wave of graduates that may also include Troy Parrott.
“I’m not surprised by Aaron’s progression,” he said. “I’ve played with him and against him and I know exactly what he can do. I know how he is as a person — there is no way he’d let the occasion get to him or anything. He’ll produce it."
London-born Coventry declared for Ireland at 15 through his Dublin-born mother Liz Kane. Since then, he’s progressed through the Hammers ranks, appearing in League Cup games and as an unused substitute in the Premier League.
“The experience I’m getting with the U21s can only help my club career,” he said.
Even teams like Armenia; people would be surprised how good they are technically and tactically. The Brazil team we played in Toulon were probably the best side I’ve ever played. And we know Italy are going to be another challenge.
Comparisons with Declan Rice have been natural, though he insists there’s no fear of him following the lead of his Hammers teammate Rice by defecting to England.
“Declan is great player and a good friend of mine, but it’s a completely different situation,” he explained.
“I don’t see myself playing anywhere else. I love playing for Ireland and that’s where my future is.”