All the King’s Men

Ireland U21 Team v Hungary

Ireland under-21 boss Noel King has now been in the job for over a year and having inherited a talented group of players, he has improved significantly on Don Givens’ efforts as coach with some reasonable results. Ahead of Ireland’s under-21 game against Liechtenstein, it is worth looking at the wealth of talent which bubbles beneath the senior squad, in what is quite a young under 21 group.

Ireland has never been spoiled for choice when it comes to goalkeepers, but has been lucky enough to have two colossal Donegal men between the posts for the majority of the past 20 years. However, there is a growing worry that once Shay Given hangs up his gloves, with no obvious young pretender ready to pick them up, Ireland will face a goalkeeper crisis. King has experimented with several goalkeepers but only one has been ever-present in his squads and that is Dubliner Ian McLoughlin. The towering custodian has firmly established himself as King’s number one. Now 20 years old, McLoughlin began his professional career at Ipswich Town but has since moved on to League One outfit MK Dons after brief loan spells at Lowestoft Town and Stockport County.
King has also used the likes Richie Branagan and Michael Quirke in friendly games, but it is Monaghan man Aaron McCarey who has emerged as understudy to McLoughlin. The 19 year old Wolves reserve goalkeeper Aaron McCarey had long been number one at under-19 level and after Ireland’s impressive run in the Under 19 European Championships, UEFA picked McCarey out as “One to Watch”, describing him as an “intimidating figure inside his area”. He has recently made the step-up from Paul Doolin’s under-19s to Noel King’s under-21s but is currently the second choice, although he will undoubtedly stake a strong claim for the number one shirt.

Through the years, Ireland has had some tremendous defenders playing football at the highest level. Kevin Moran, Paul McGrath, Steve Staunton and Denis Irwin are just some of the names that immediately spring to mind. However, in recent times, there has been a lamentable drought of talent and Richard Dunne is arguably the only defender worth talking about in the same bracket as the aforementioned individuals. Amazingly, Noel King has been deploying a defence made up of four natural centre backs and each of them possess undoubted potential to progress in the game. 20 year old Rob Kiernan is an English born Irish under age international who recently signed for Wigan Athletic and is currently King’s captain, having captained previous Irish teams. The centre-half started his career as a midfielder but switched to defence and he has been ever-present in Noel King’s backline since he took over.
Niall Canavan is another English-born Irish international who currently plies his trade at Scunthorpe United. The 20 year old declared for Ireland in 2011, and has emerged as Noel King’s preferred choice alongside Rob Kiernan at centre-half. Canavan has played many games for League One team Scunthorpe, and while ‘Iron’ fans have high-hopes for the young man, he has found his appearances limited with fellow Irish international, the on-loan Shane Duffy, being Alan Knill’s preferred choice. 19 year old Derry man Shane Duffy already has a wealth of experience behind him. The giant centre-half made his Everton debut at the tender age of 17 and could possibly have had senior international honours had he not suffered a life-threatening injury at 18 while with Trapattoni’s senior side. Duffy had a loan spell at Championship outfit Burnley in the 2010-2011 season and is currently on loan at Scunthorpe United where he has firmly established himself in Alan Knill’s starting eleven.
Bolton’s Mark Connolly is another centre-half in King’s squad, but he has been playing mostly at right back or in midfield, a versatility that the Monaghan native believes is an invaluable strength in the modern game. Now 19 years of age, Connolly’s manager Owen Coyle has stated his willingness to play the defender at centre back. Gavin Gunning is a further natural centre-half but is equally adept at left-back, which is where he has featured during King’s tenure. At 20 years of age, Gunning is arguably one of the most experienced and certainly one of the most decorated players in the squad, having represented Ireland at all underage levels. He kicked off his career at Blackburn, but has since moved on to SPL side Dundee United after several successful loan spells in Scotland and the lower leagues in England. Left back Greg Cunningham is only 20 years of age yet has already featured three times for Giovanni Trapattoni’s senior side. The Galway man suffered a horrendous leg-break in the 2010-2011 season, but has since returned to full fitness and has been included in Noel King’s squad to face Liechtenstein.

Ireland U21s versus AustriaMidfielders
Despite the vast improvement on Steve Staunton’s regime, the reign of Giovanni Trapattoni has also embarrassingly exposed the painful weakness in the Irish midfield. For all their efforts, the likes of Glenn Whelan, Keith Andrews, Darron Gibson and Keith Fahey have been largely ineffective in the rigid 4-4-2 formation, with many fans begging for a change of formation, or at least mentality. Noel King’s under-21 side, in contrast, is brimming with talent in the middle of the park. Chelsea reserve player Conor Clifford has represented Ireland at all underage levels, often playing a full year above his age-group. A skillful midfielder with great vision and a powerful shot, the 19 year old captained Chelsea to FA Youth Cup glory and has had two loan spells to date, with Plymouth Argyle and Notts County. Indeed, Clifford’s progress was recently recognised with a call-up to Giovanni Trapattoni’s senior side in August 2011.
Dubliner Robbie Brady is a real star in the making. The 19 year old Manchester United winger is currently on loan at Hull City where his dazzling skill and speed has already made him a fan-favourite. Interestingly, the former St Kevin’s Boys player’s Ireland career appeared to be in doubt following an alleged disagreement with under 19 manager Paul Doolin prior to the Under 19 European Championships, but he has since made the step up to under 21 level and, to Noel King’s delight, has been thriving, scoring three goals in five appearances. After experiencing recurring injuries early in his career, Brady is finally realising his massive potential.
Leeds United player Aidy White recently declared his allegiance to Ireland in 2011 after having played for England at under 19 level. Equally adept at left-back or left-wing, White has been playing on the wing for Noel King and has impressed greatly in his three performances to date. 20 year old Celtic player Richie Towell is currently into his second loan spell at Hibernian. Another versatile player, Towell can play at right back, but it is at centre midfield where he has impressed for Noel King’s under 21s. Towell is a tireless ball-winning midfielder who commits himself admirably to tackles. A controversial recent inclusion in King’s under-21 side is Preston North End player Adam Barton. Barton is a lanky, but graceful attacking midfielder and it is interesting to note that the English-born 20 year old actually has a senior cap for Northern Ireland. However, he opted to play for the Republic instead and has since represented the FAI on two occasions. Derby County midfielder, Jeff Hendrick has made the step up from under 19 level to cement a starting berth in King’s under 21s. The 19 year old has a tremendous amount of potential, which has been showcased in his performances for Derby this season.
With Robbie Keane entering the twilight of his career, Ireland are in desperate need of a goalscorer. Sadly however, there is a distinct lack of firepower in Noel King’s under 21 squad. Nevertheless, King has utilised a number of quality players in attack. For example, the likes of Crystal Palace forward, the English born Sean Scannell has shown that he has plenty of potential. Indeed, Scannell was previously included in Giovanni Trapattoni’s senior squad; unfortunately, the 21 year old has been plagued by injuries, forcing him to withdraw from many squads. Arsenal youngster, the English born Rhys Murphy, has also recently declared for Ireland having played at under 19 and under 17 level for England, while English born James Collins has been a regular for Ireland at under 19 and under 21 level. Collins started his career at Aston Villa but now finds himself with League Two side, Shrewsbury. Finally, another English born player, Joe Mason, who has played for Ireland at under 19 and under 21 level is now playing regularly for Cardiff, having signed from League Two outfit, Plymouth Argyle.

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