As much as the diminishing number of Premier League regulars in the senior Ireland squad is a concern, deeper problems are evident among the U21 panel, though Noel King’s main striker Reece Grego-Cox insists the non-league circuit is ideal for him at this stage.
U21 European Championship Group 5 qualifier
Ireland V Azerbaijan
Tonight: Tallaght Stadium, 7.30pm
That King will have to choose between the Woking striker or Joe Quigley, currently on loan with another Conference side, Boreham Wood, to lead the line in tonight’s European Championship qualifier against Azerbaijan is reflective of the dilemmas facing his players within the English game.
Rather than prolong his frustration at Queen’s Park Rangers, for whom he made his Premier League debut at 19, Grego-Cox brokered an early release from his contract in January.
That was the easy part. Finding a club where he could get a run of games in order to keep his spot in the Ireland side proved a challenge and dropping out of the four tiers was the wisest move in his eyes.
Quigley, who started in the 3-1 friendly victory over Iceland on Thursday, followed a similar thought process by accepting a loan offer from Boreham Wood to depart Bournemouth.
It’s a whole different ball game to group leaders Germany. Their main attacker, Mahmoud Dahoud, has played for Borussia Dortmund against Real Madrid in this season’s Champions League and Max Eggestein is a Bundesliga regular for Werder Bremen.
Ireland, who will go within two points of the table-toppers by winning tonight, have thankfully not been unduly affected by the club struggles of their strikers in the campaign.
Grego-Cox had been frozen out by Ian Holloway when he got off the mark against Azerbaijan in the away fixture last September and didn’t show any rustiness in following it up a month later with a hat-trick in the 4-0 thumping of Israel.
He’s played 11 times, albeit in the Conference, since then and is primed to continue his streak tonight.
“Sometimes you have to take a step back to go forward and I signed with Woking until the end of the season,” explained the Londoner, whose grandmother Christine Grego was born in Clare and now lives in Cork.
“I think people underestimate the standard of the Conference. There’s a lot of big clubs fighting to get back into League Two and it has really helped to get my sharpness back.
“It was the same for Harry Arter. He came here after finishing at Charlton and he’s in the Premier League and an Irish international.”
King welcomes back Declan Rice and Kieran O’Hara from duty with the senior squad in Turkey on Friday, while first-choice winger Harry Charsley is out injured.
Ireland’s unbeaten start to the campaign was ended by a late Norway winner in Oslo back in November but they should return to winning ways against the nation anchored to the bottom of the table.
Meanwhile, Colin O’Brien says his Ireland U17 team are fully focused on this afternoon’s clash with Poland, despite already securing qualification for the European Championship with Saturday’s 3-0 win over Georgia.
“This will be a highly competitive game,” promised head coach O’Brien. “Poland need something out of it to qualify for the European Championships. A point may be good enough for them.”
O’Brien’s side have won all five games in the Qualifying and Elite Rounds and he says the team have improved over the season.
“There’s competition within the squad. I’m not the type of coach that looks at goals for or goals against over a campaign. It’s more about looking at the performance of the players and making sure they are working in a good environment.”
K O’Hara (Manchester United); L Kinsella (Walsall), C Whelan (Yeovil Town), R Sweeney (Bristol Rovers), D Kane (Cork City); J Cullen (West Ham), D Rice (West Ham Utd); J Mulraney (Inverness), R Manning (QPR), O Shodipo (Colchester); R Grego-Cox (Woking).
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