Noel King's final vision for next generation of Irish stars
THE LAST Irish team to travel to Poland for the major finals of a football tournament didn't have such a memorable time.
But Noel King hopes that the Republic's U21 side can make history in Poland in 2017 by becoming the first Irish side to reach the European Championship finals at U21 level level, after yesterday's draw for the qualifiers gave the Irish side a chance of qualification.
The draw for the next Euro finals, to be held in Poland in 2017, has grouped Ireland with Italy, Serbia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Andorra, those qualifiers kicking off with a home tie against Andorra next month.
In the last qualifying campaign Ireland were well beaten by Germany (0-4 and 0-2), and picked up just two points from battles with Romania and Montenegro, but their superb displays in the previous campaign, where they drew 2-2 at home to Italy and then beat a strong Italian side 4-2 away from home, when the Italians had won all their other home games, breeds confidence for King.
"We will go into every game with a realistic chance of getting a result. In the qualifiers for the 2013 finals we took four points off Italy and beat them 4-2 out there, with nine men, one of our best-ever results," says King, in charge of the U21 side since 2010.
"Italy are strong, we know that, but I feel we can do something in the two games against them. To me, Serbia are the favourites in the group, they did really well to qualify for the finals that are on this summer and their recent progress has been excellent.
"We will have to do our homework on Slovenia, Lithuania and Andorra but we would have to be optimistic that we can do something. We don't have a Germany in our group this time, we were maybe unfortunate to get Germany in the last campaign and they beat us twice so I think we have a chance now."
UEFA have changed the structure of the U21 finals for 2017: for the 2015 finals, only seven teams qualified along with the hosts (Czech Republic) but 12 sides will qualify for Poland 2017. Ireland have never qualified at U21 level in 18 attempts at qualification and have traditionally been closer to the wooden spoon than a qualification place - in fact the side finished bottom of their qualifying group for the 2009 and 2011 tournaments, before King took over as boss from Don Givens.
And Dubliner King is eager to see an Irish side on that Euro stage at last. "We need to bet at our best but I want us to get there," King told The Herald.
"Is this our best chance to qualify? We have to make sure that's the case. I have been to a major finals with the girls' international side and I would love to get there with the U21s as well."
Players like Glen Rea (Brighton), Dylan Connolly (Ipswich) and Darragh Lenihan (Blackburn) will all come to the fore now after recent friendly appearances.