Ireland’s U21s have been grouped with Italy, Sweden, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Luxembourg in the qualifying draw for the 2023 European Championships.
Georgia and Romania will jointly stage the 2023 tournament which the Republic and Northern Ireland associations had expressed an interest in hosting.
As with the last campaign, the nine group winners and the best runner-up will progress directly to the finals, with the other eight competing in four play-offs to join them.
Ireland’s fixture list will be confirmed in the coming days, with opening qualifiers scheduled for late March.
The Irish also faced five-times champions Italy and Sweden in the last campaign, with the Azzurri recovering from a slow start to seal top spot and the only guaranteed spot at this year’s finals.
Since winning the tournament in 2015, Sweden qualified for the next version but were beaten twice by Ireland in the most recent campaign. They are managed by former Sheffield Wednesday full-back Roland Nilsson.
Bosnia-Herzegovina edged out Wales to clinch third in a group which Germany and Belgium claimed the top two spots.
Montenegro finished bottom of their group behind Kazakhstan and Faroe Islands, the same position as Luxembourg in Ireland’s pool.
Nine members of the last Ireland U21 squad, which manager Jim Crawford initially assisted Stephen Kenny in managing, graduated to the senior ranks but there is still plenty of talent available for the upcoming campaign.
Crawford was unable to complete the job his boss Kenny started by guiding Ireland to a first-ever qualification.
The Boys in Green had soared to the top of their group by winning five of their first seven qualifiers but defeat to Italy in Crawford’s first match at the helm left their play-off destiny reliant on beating Iceland on November 15.
On a cold, windy day at Tallaght Stadium, Ireland drew level with 15 minutes left only to lose 2-1. Some of their key men from earlier in the campaign, such as Jason Knight, were in Wales that day preparing for senior duty.
Nevertheless, as a fourth seed going into the last campaign, finishing third behind Italy and the Icelanders bumped them up a category in today’s draw held virtually from Uefa headquarters in Nyon.
“Unlike the senior campaigns, we get a chance to negotiate our fixture dates,” the former Newcastle United and Reading player explained to 2FM’s Game On show last night.
“A lot of research has gone to find out the travel times to each potential country and the temperatures there.
“We don’t want to be going somewhere the conditions don't suit us but it’s up to us to negotiate after the draw.”
Since replacing Kenny in April, Crawford has had to manage in the Covid-19 era. Although they took scheduled flights on the trip to Italy in October, a charter was booked by the FAI for the final qualifier away to Luxembourg.
In sharp contrast to the senior set-up, there were no cases or close contacts in any of the U21 camps.
“As long as we protect the players and keep the protocols stringent, we’ll be okay,” said Crawford, who could turn to the likes of Troy Parrott and €10m-rated centre-back Nathan Collins over the campaign. He expects Derby County captain Jason Knight to remain with the senior squad. Other starlets still eligible from the last campaign include Michael Obafemi, Gavin Bazunu, Lee O’Connor and Conor Coventry. West Ham United striker Mipo Odubeko and Manchester City midfielder Joe Hodge are also likely to come in for their first U21 caps.