Who remembers the night Ariel Ortega was booed at Lansdowne Road? It was back in April 1998 and whilst Ortega committed a few footballing crimes in his time, including head-butting Edwin van der Sar in the quarter final of the World Cup, his indiscretion on this occasion was having the temerity to be awarded man of the match in a fairly routine 2-0 win for Argentina.
When the stadium announcer relayed the winner of the award as the number ten, the home fans assumed for, just the briefest of moments, that a mistake had been made and surely it was Ireland’s mercurial new star, Robbie Keane, who had been awarded the honour. When it became clear that no mistake had been made the spontaneous boos rang out. Surely Ortega was bemused with the reaction, but the Irish had things to be excited about and validation of the main source of that excitement was demanded.
Ireland haven’t had a lot to be excited about from the youth ranks in the two decades that have passed since then, but green shoots have shot up again in recent times and yet again it’s a pair of teenage forwards striker who are creating the biggest buzz.
Last month, Ireland proved yet again against Switzerland that while the current senior team is not one which will be at the head of the queue when prizes for aesthetics are being passed out. Of course, when it comes to grit and determination they are a group for the country to be proud of.
In that context, it almost feels disloyal to this current group to be wishing their time away, but after the recent performances of the Under-21 side, the temptation to look forward to what the next decade holds for Irish soccer at senior level is overwhelming.
Since Euro ’88, nothing has quite got the country’s sporting juices flowing like the presence of its international football team at major finals. Moments like Timofte against Bonner, Ray Houghton in Giants Stadium, Robbie Keane in Ibaraki and Robbie Brady in Lille would rank high on any list of greatest Irish sporting moments from the past three decades.
With that in mind, the thought that a decade of major championship appearances may be ahead is one that has to excite all Irish sports people. The 2022 World Cup campaign under Stephen Kenny will be the first opportunity for many of Ireland’s newest generation of young players to stake their claim for places in the senior team. A favourable draw would be a big help here, but with only 13 places up for grabs for European nations qualification for what will surely be a youthful team may eventually prove out of reach.
However, by the time Germany 2024 rolls around, qualification should be well within Ireland’s grasp and with it an opportunity to lay the foundation for a return to the big World Cup show in 2026 in North America. That 2024 finals, allowing for the close proximity of Germany to Ireland and with the nostalgia for Euro ’88 in full flow, could be one of the great Irish sporting adventures and we have had a look at what type of squad Ireland could have in place by that time.
With Caoimhin Kelleher and Mark Travers both making first team debuts recently with Liverpool and Bournemouth respectively, it’s a reasonable prediction that Ireland will have a safe pair of hands between the sticks in the years to come. In defence, increasingly experienced Premier League players such as Matt Docherty, Shane Duffy and John Egan could be blended with exciting younger talents such as Conor Masterson and Nathan Collins to equip the team with a solid defensive unit.
Jack Byrne’s cameo against Bulgaria last month gave the Irish public a tantalising glimpse of his creative abilities. As his rehabilitation with Shamrock Rovers continues, he has the potential to be the fulcrum of a creative Irish midfield for the coming decade.
Joe Hodge is where Byrne was a few years ago with Manchester City and after his eye catching displays for Ireland’s Under-19 side at this year’s European Championships in Armenia, his progress over the next few season’s will be watched closely by everybody associated with Irish football.
Up front, for the first time in a generation, Ireland could find themselves spoiled for options. The jewels in the crown, as alluded to earlier, are undoubtedly Tottenham’s Troy Parrott and Brighton’s Aaron Connolly, but there are a number of others making a degree of progress with their clubs that hints strongly at a bright attacking future for Ireland. The surprise at the absence of Michael Obafemi and – initially – Connolly from Mick McCarthy’s squad for the upcoming decisive Euro 2020 qualifiers is testament to the impact both players are making at such a young age in the Premier League.
When compiling our prospective 2024 squad, we’ve tried to blend some of the younger players with Ireland’s current pick but the likelihood is there are many others who will find themselves in the frame by that time.
They didn’t get included in the final squad listed below but any of Gavin Kilkenny, Luca Connell, Conor Coventry, Jonathon Afolabi and Bohemians Danny Mandroiu could be major players for Ireland for years to come. With stories surfacing of Dejo Sotona scorching the earth around Carrington at a top speed of 22.9mph, the hope is that both competition and quality within the Irish set up will be at an all-time high in the coming years.
Cautionary supporters will know, as the sage Yogi Berra once said “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. For instance, the last Ireland player to play for Arsenal was Conor Henderson in the FA Cup in 2011 and he’s now plying his trade with Pirin Blagoevgrad in the less than heralded Bulgarian league; but the volume and quality of young Irish players making their mark currently is above anything seen since Kerr’s youth sides.
It’s enough to get us dreaming. Maybe of a return to Stuttgart 36 years after Ray Houghton put the ball in the English net. But this time it will be Jack Byrne eluding his former U-21 international colleague Declan Rice’s clutches before knocking a ball through for Troy Parrott to shoot down the English once again.
We’re allowed to dream. Here’s the squad that could take Ireland to that dream.
|Player||Current Team||Age at Euro 2024|
|Kieran O’ Hara||Man Utd||28|
|John Egan||Sheffield Utd||31|
|Enda Stevens||Sheffield Utd||33|
|Lee O’ Connor||Celtic||23|
|Jack Byrne||Shamrock Rovers||28|
|Alan Browne||Preston North End||29|
|Josh Cullen||West Ham||28|
|Callum Robinson||Sheffield Utd||29|
|Joe Hodge||Manchester City||20|
|Troy Parrott||Tottenham Hotspur||22|
|Adam Idah||Norwich City||23|