Lisa Fallon: Lessons need to be learned if Republic of Ireland teams are to reach next level

Crawford’s U-21s were unfortunate not to reach the European Championship finals while Kenny’s senior squad remain a work-in-progress

This was a curious international window with wildly contrasting views adopted. Certain football performances and results were analysed kindly, whereas others felt the full whip of media abuse.

The Republic of Ireland under-21s drew empathy, understanding, and support after the heartbreaking Euros play-off defeat on penalties in Israel. From what I observed, neither Ireland manager Jim Crawford, nor his players, came in for harsh individual criticism, despite the failure to qualify.

By contrast, the Republic of Ireland senior men’s team drew criticism, frustration, disbelief, confusion, some understanding, plenty of intense individual scrutiny, and lingering calls for change after the conclusion of their unsuccessful Nations League campaign.

In England, the bigger media market took a chunk out of Gareth Southgate’s team being relegated from the Nations League top division, with some vicious criticism reserved for Harry Maguire, a player low in confidence, who plays under a level of scrutiny where some are just watching for an error upon which they can pounce (yes, I know, Maguire made two).


But it is curious, to me anyway, to see the varying reactions to three separate teams failing to meet their own objectives and how expectations can fuel that.

Crawford’s side targeted qualification for Euro 2023. He knew they were chasing history, seeking to become the first under-21s squad to reach a major tournament. They set the bar high for themselves and grew as a team, in both confidence and performances as the campaign progressed.

There was ownership of under-par performances and there were visible tactical adaptations. No excuses were offered when key players were missing through injury – and there were plenty, like Gavin Kilkenny – as trust was placed in the next man up. They made no fuss about all the senior internationals – and there were plenty, like Nathan Collins – who were still eligible to play under-21.

Despite being underdogs, they secured a play-off place from a group that contained Sweden and Italy, and got a tough draw against a strong opponent in Israel for the knockout games. They secured an admirable 1-1 draw in Tallaght, before a big crowd, but publicly rued some missed opportunities, knowing they could have won the game.

In the absence of Kilkenny, Conor Noss and Luca Connell, Joe Hodge was drafted into the team for an impressive debut, while Aaron Connolly put in an assured and mature performance up front as he works to get his career back on track.

They could take confidence from the drawn first leg, despite knowing that three high-quality senior internationals would be parachuted in by Israel, to face them for the second leg. No excuses were offered.

Many people cared about this game, with hundreds (thousands?) vacating their seats in the Aviva Stadium to watch extra-time in Tel Aviv during Tuesday’s Armenia match.

The under-21s lost on penalties but there should be few if any regrets. They went for it and stayed humble throughout. They set a high bar, having many successes along the way, before ultimately failing to achieve their primary objective.

Deep down, they will know just how close they came and some day, when the dust and the disappointment settles, they’ll all be better for it. The hurt they feel today will fuel a major success later.

People bought into their ambition and the transparency of their journey. There were clear targets, clarity of expectations and scope for transparent accountability. There was Evan Ferguson at the start of the campaign and Evan Ferguson after. Same goes for Conor Coventry and many others. We got to watch them mature into elite pros.

Sooner rather than later, I hope to see them flood into Stephen Kenny’s senior panel (before a talented batch of under-19s passes them out!).

The lines seem a little more blurred with the senior team. Kenny also set the bar high for his group, stating publicly that the aim was to win a Nations League group that ended up including Scotland, Ukraine and Armenia. It was more than a fair ambition. Expectations of being able to compete with and beat those teams were not lofty because they are all at similar levels.

It was the perfect scenario to measure the growth of the team’s performances and a valuable opportunity to try to build consistency and rhythm heading into the Euro 2024 qualifying campaign.

There is confusion about whether good performances outweigh the need for cold hard results. Positives can be plucked from this Nations League campaign. Like Michael Obafemi’s ability to spin and score from distance. Or John Egan as captain. Or Egan’s goals. The first half at Hampden Park. Robbie Brady’s return from two years of injury-cursed international exile. Nathan Collins, in general.

The negatives, and there are a few, have also been catalogued and flung at the wall. Some stick, some are unjustified.

All these young players in the senior team are bound to make mistakes every now and then. Everyone does, no one is exempt. Kenny noted the desire to put three, four, five goals on Armenia is what opened them up to two goals on the break.

Inexperience and mistakes are costly at senior level. The expectations are higher and that’s part of the challenge of the step up. Eventually the lessons need to be learned though.

The under-21s ambitiously aimed for the stars, the senior team aimed for the top table of European football. The under-21s nearly got there, the senior team were not even close. And that’s just where we sit at the moment.