Jim Crawford didn’t get the result he wanted in Tallaght on Friday night but he had plenty to make him smile even as thoughts turned to tomorrow’s European Championship U21 playoff second leg against Israel in Tel Aviva.
His side had dominated the initial meeting for long spells only for a failure to capitalise on their chances and the concession of a sloppy goal to leave them with a 1-1 draw rather than the lead their efforts had so merited.
Still, his players had impressed for the most part and chief among them were the two making their debuts. Joe Redmond of St Patrick’s Athletic was safe as houses at the back and Joe Hodge had bossed the midfield, driving the team forward.
“Joe Hodge was outstanding,” Crawford said later.
Now with Wolves, Hodge has only just turned 20 and his performance three days ago was a reminder of the wunderkind who had so impressed at Euro U17 and U19 finals before Covid and injuries derailed his career for over two years.
“It was tough. I didn't play anywhere near as many games as I would have liked to, which didn't help me one bit, but it toughens you up. It's just getting knocked down and going again and going again, but I'm fit and playing the best football I have in ages now.”
He describes himself as a “different player” to the one that first caught the eye here before his struggles and he has now emerged from a period in which he left Manchester City, his hometown club, and saw a loan spell at Derry City scuppered by his fitness issues.
It’s not that long ago since Stephen Kenny was floating the idea that he might even be capped at senior level to ward off England’s interest but his return to duty with the young Boys in Green is nothing if not timely given the stakes at play.
“I was in the squad in the summer. I felt like I did alright then so I was hopeful I’d get the nod, especially because I’ve played more games since then back at Wolves. I was just delighted when I found out. It’s where I want to be, being involved is even better, I’m delighted to be here.”
Hodge never actually played in any of the qualifiers for the U17s and U19s so he is a step ahead of himself in that regard with the U21s and he knows the value of making it to a finals where they could showcase their talents against the best Europe has to offer.
“It’s been a long campaign. I’ve not been involved in all of it, so the other lads would know better than me how hard it’s been to get to this point. I can see what it means to them, how hard they have worked to get here. It means everything to me, it’s a huge opportunity. We have never qualified before so to qualify would be brilliant.”