U21 preview: Ireland left with tall task of entering Israeli cauldron without Ferguson

Israel flood side with senior internationals to counter Aaron Connolly threat

Under-21 European Championships 2023 qualifier, play-off, second leg: Israel v Ireland, Tuesday September 27th, 6.15pm kick-off, Bloomfield stadium, Tel Aviv, live on RTÉ Player

Already, and it’s still only 2022, the prospect of Ireland entering a foreign cauldron without Evan Ferguson is almost too much to bear.

The 17-year-old has emerged as an injury doubt ahead of the European Championships qualification play-off second-leg against Israel in Tel Aviv. The Brighton centre forward, who scored from a towering header in Tallaght last Friday to salvage the one-all draw, is struggling to shake off an ankle problem.

“Evan has a slight knock and that’s about it,” said Ireland manager Jim Crawford. “He didn’t train yesterday with the group. We’re nursing him at the minute but he should be ok.”


If Ferguson fails to recover, Port Vale’s Mipo Odubeko could come into the attack alongside Aaron Connolly, who excelled in the first-leg following demotion from the senior international squad after Brighton loaned him to Serie B club Venezia. As his fledgling career threatened to unravel, Connolly’s fresh attitude and renewed pace abruptly halted a slide into obscurity.

The tale of these bright young Brighton strikers has proved cautionary and limitless in equal measure.

“You have to be careful at times when you speak about Evan,” said Crawford of a Dublin teenager who made his debut for Bohemians at 14. “He has unbelievable potential, he really has. He’s still young. He has a long way to go in terms of reaching his ceiling. He’s got a fantastic physical presence, a really good first touch, he can score goals as he showed the other night.”

The Second Captains soccer department has already christened him The Irish Haaland.

“He’s a special talent,” Crawford continued. “I do know the club have a development plan for him, which is encouraging.”

In reaction to Connolly’s impact for the under-21s, Israel have rerouted three senior internationals - Olympiacos left back Doron Leidner, steely midfielder Eden Kartsev and Celtic’s Liel Abada – as they attempt to deny this Conor Coventry-led Irish team from reaching their first major tournament at under-21 level next summer in Georgia and Romania.

“I think it’s a compliment to our performance on Friday that they needed the senior team players,” said Crawford. “But it doesn’t faze us. I think we can play a little better than we did on Friday evening, as good a performance as that was.”

The match is only live on the RTÉ Player due to a schedule clash with the senior international against Armenia at the Aviva stadium.

If Ireland are to prevail all the aforementioned talent must show up, along with Joe Hodge becoming a core figure in the creative process. Hodge, a diminutive ball-playing midfielder, would have been discarded in any other era in Irish football but Crawford has fast-tracked him into the starting XI following injury to Gavin Kilkenny and Conor Noss.

“I talk a lot to Joe at Wolves,” said Nathan Collins on Monday morning. “He’s with the first team, is a really good guy and I like him. He’s a nice technical player and he has that old-school principle of not minding getting stuck in. I’ve a lot of belief that when he gets that opportunity he’ll show it to everyone.”

In a perfect world, Ferguson and Hodge, not to mention teak-tough defender Eiran Cashin, would surge from the underage ranks and into the national consciousness in time for Euro 2024. Reality could intervene with Israel’s very own golden generation set to outclass Ireland, although with a penalty shootout is not beyond the realms of possibility. Crawford even revealed that spot kick preparation has been shelved.

“We practised them all week so the day before, you just don’t know who is watching. You know what I mean? That’s not me being super paranoid but I know what goes on at this level and there’s every chance that there could be cameras on you, there could be ground staff that are watching.

“Whoever is left on the pitch, if it does happen to go to penalties, will be prepared.”

And a final message from the 49-year-old former Shelbourne midfielder? “Go and create history. It will act as a springboard for their own development and profile to wherever they want to go in their own careers. What an opportunity.”

Ireland (Possible): Maher (Derry City); O’Connor (Tranmere Rovers), Redmond (St Patrick’s Athletic), O’Brien (RWD Molenbeek, Belgium), Cashin (Derby County); Smallbone (Stoke City), Hodge (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Coventry (West Ham United), Wright (Bradford); Connolly (Venezia, Italy), Ferguson (Brighton and Hove Albion).

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent