|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.