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Crawford prepared to put distractions aside for clash with Italy

Euro U21 qualifier, Italy v Republic of Ireland, (Pisa, Tonight 5.0)

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Assistant manager John O’Shea with manager Jim Crawford. Photo: Sportsfile

Assistant manager John O’Shea with manager Jim Crawford. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Assistant manager John O’Shea with manager Jim Crawford. Photo: Sportsfile

Even with a 25-year gap, Jim Crawford can still recall the details of his first appearance at U-21 level as a player with Ireland, a strong memory of standing to face the flag in Terryland Park to face Latvia in a Euro qualifier.

He was appointed to succeed Stephen Kenny last April but nothing could have prepared the Dubliner for his first experience as manager of the U-21s, which happens this evening in Pisa (5pm), away to Italy in a qualifier for the European Championships.

The game is being played behind closed doors, and due to instances of Covid-19 in their camp, seven positive cases in the last 24 hours, Italy have replaced their U-21 side (reckoned to be one of the finest, and most expensive, ever assembled by the Azzurri at that level) with their U-20 squad, playing under a new coach.

The star-studded Italian side which drew 0-0 with Ireland in Tallaght Stadium last year, which included names like Everton's Moise Kean and Sandro Tonali, a recent purchase for AC Milan with a price tag of €10million, will be replaced by unknowns from an U-20 squad which had assembled this week for a training camp and find themselves sent out to do battle with Ireland in a game that could very well decide automatic qualification for the finals.

Italy's original U-21 coach Paolo Nicolato said he was "very sorry" that due to an outbreak of Covid in that camp he had to withdraw his team and also hand over the reins to U-20 team boss Alberto Bollini but added "my thoughts first of all are on the health of the boys".

Italy have asked UEFA for permission for four of the original U-21 squad, including senior international Tonali, to remain with the group.

"Every day here there's going to be a twist with regards to the coronavirus. Probably between now and kick-off there might be something else.

"All I know is that the boys have been excellent with regards to all the Covid protocols," says Crawford, his detailed homework on Italy now redundant due to their squad being replaced en masse.

"I can only imagine what's going on with the senior camp. I spoke to Stephen [Kenny] on Sunday and it does come as a shock, then the whole close contact thing.

"It is very disruptive but I do think people need football."

Capped three times at U-21 level in 1995, Crawford played for an Irish side which never came close to qualification but the form from the side in this extremely talented group has them on the verge, in sight of the Euro finals for the first time.

His squad is reduced by injury and senior call-ups (Troy Parrott, Caoimhín Kelleher, Adam Idah, Aaron Connolly, Jayson Molumby, Jason Knight and Dara O'Shea unavailable) but he says the players he has left know what's at stake

"I've spoken to them all individually and, for me, no matter who Italy put out, this is an opportunity for us and if we can get three points here we are a step closer to the European finals," he says.

"So the feedback I've been getting from the players is that they are focused and that they want to play. They know how big this is. Whoever Italy put out, we will be fired up and they have been given all the information and they know that we have to go and give a big performance and get the result.

"A lot of them are aware of the history. It gives them the opportunity to play against Europe's best and it's the first time that we would qualify for the U21 finals, it could really ignite people's love for football in the country.

"And for a younger generation they will be captivated watching the finals in March and in the May/June window. They are all aware of it and we have been giving the players bite-sized information throughout this window.

"If there are concerns about losing focus, I can assure you we're not. We're on top of it and we all know the magnitude of the game here."