Friday 15 December 2017

Irish Rover Lenihan eyes up U21 finals qualification

Republic of Ireland U21 Darragh Lenihan in action during their Euro 2017 U21 Championship qualifier against Lithuania in Waterford last year. Photo: Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland U21 Darragh Lenihan in action during their Euro 2017 U21 Championship qualifier against Lithuania in Waterford last year. Photo: Sportsfile

It's been a season of personal success, but overall disappointment, for Meath native Darragh Lenihan at Blackburn Rovers this season.

But the highly-rated midfielder is setting his sights on achieving success at international level, hoping to be part of an Ireland U21 side which can make history by qualifying for the European Chamoionship finals for the first time.

Coming off the back of successive defeats, Noel King's side take on Italy in Waterford this evening (KO 6.0, live on Setanta Ireland) aware that a win over the classy Italians, and a positive result away to Slovenia on Monday, would put them back into contention for qualification.

Absences due to suspension (Sean Kavanagh) and injury (Josh Cullen, Alan Browne) had deprived boss King of some key players, but the U21 coach did get some good news ahead of the tie at the RSC as senior team manager Martin O'Neill allowed Jack Byrne link up with his U21 team-mates.

Byrne had been training with the seniors and there was a suggestion that O'Neill might keep hold of the talented Dutch-based midfielder but he was released back to the U21 squad after training with the seniors in Dublin yesterday.

Italy have dropped just two points from five games and a side dotted with Serie A regulars will give Ireland very stiff test, but Lenihan feels that qualification could still come Ireland's way.

"We have never qualified for the U21 finals and that's the goal," Lenihan told The Herald, the former Belvedere player in a confident mood thanks to some impressive displays in the Championship for Blackburn.

"At the start of the campaign, Noel said the aim was to qualify for the championships and we all want that, every player in this squad wants to play against the best, and the U21 finals is a great stage. We have a hard week ahead but we believe in ourselves and I feel we can get a result.

"Italy are a good side. They are very organised, as you'd expect from Italy, in the away game we made one mistake and they punished us. We had good chances which we should have put away. If we perform as a team we can get something."

Blackburn have not been performing as a team this season, which is why they changed manager mid-season and are also mid-table, but Lenihan has done well since he worked his way into the side.

"It's been brilliant," says the Dunboyne lad.

"If you'd asked me back in November how many games I think I'd have played by March I'd have said four or five but I have been involved in every game now for months, the gaffer has been great with me and has given me an opportunity to improve my game.

"I am only 22 but I am still learning, we have eight games left and hopefully I can play in every game until the end of the season."

The current U21 campaign with Ireland is on his mind, but long-term, Lenihan is keen to step up. "I am 22 now, if I am playing regularly for my club then there's no reason why I can't think about senior caps but that will come down to performances, I will keep working hard and hope that the chance comes along some day," he says.

Lenihan is likely to captain an Ireland side where players like Ian Lawlor, Danny Rogers, Jack Byrne and Glen Rea have done well on loan, but home-based lads like Sean Maguire, Brandon Miele and Kevin O'Connor are also in contention.

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