U21s close to rock bottom
HAVING finished bottom of the group in the qualifiers for the last European Championships, the only way was up for the Ireland U21 side when they kicked off their current qualifying campaign last March.
But somehow things have managed to get worse, as a 2-1 defeat to Armenia in Dublin last night -- coming just months after a 4-1 loss away to the Armenians -- leaves this Irish U21 side at a very low ebb.
It's hard to say if our U21 team has hit rock bottom -- we probably reached that in 1993 when a side featuring Gary Kelly and Graham Kavanagh lost 8-0 in Germany under Maurice Setters -- but seeing an Irish side adrift at the bottom of their group table, behind Switzerland, Turkey, Estonia, Georgia and Armenia, with just four points from seven games, is a deeply depressing sight, as depressing as the fact that Ireland were outclassed and outpassed by an excellent Armenian side last night.
Under-21 football is never really about the short term, but the long-term goal of producing players for the senior squad is seen as the priority, as no one really remembers who wins the U21 European title every year (not really a worry for us as Ireland have never qualified for a major finals at U21 level).
But there should also be real concern about the current state of U21 football in this country: finishing bottom of the last qualifying group was an omen and that has carried on to the current campaign.
If the FAI are to salvage any pride from the current international year, under-pressure manager Don Givens will be praying for more points and at least one win from the last three games in the group, a home tie with Estonia in August and then two tough away games with Switzerland and Turkey.
"We have three games left in the group and we need to get some results more than ever now, we have lost to Armenia twice so we need to use the last three games to show that we're not that bad a team," said Cavan-born striker Cillian Sheridan after last night's game.
"We just weren't there last night, we don't know why. It's very frustrating, we know how well we can play but we just haven't done that in the last two games.
"We had a good build-up to the game, everyone was looking forward to the game last night as it was a chance to get rid of the memory of the last result against Armenia, we wanted to play well and get a good result, but that didn't happen. We had good training all week but we just let ourselves down," added Sheridan, currently on loan from Celtic to St Johnstone.
Recent results make for very grim reading as Ireland are now without a win in seven games at U21 level and have not won a competitive game since November 2007. Armenia, on the other hand, have picked up seven points in this campaign, six of them against Ireland, and the away side -- in what could be an omen for the Irish senior side as they prepare to face Armenia in the qualifiers for Euro 2012 -- looked very good against the Irish team last night.
Armenia took the lead on 34 minutes when a shot from Levon Hairapetian beat Irish keeper Shane Redmond, and five minutes before the break it was 2-0 thanks to a free-kick from Gevorg Ghazaryan.
Givens changed things at half-time, with Sunderland midfielder David Meyler replaced by debutant Ian Daly, and the Greek-based forward did get a goal back ten minutes from time after a shot by Cian Hughton has rebounded.
The Irish side had the usual mixture of big-name players with top level experience (Seamus Coleman and David Meyler have played in the English top flight this season, Cillian Sheridan played in the SPL and Champions League for Celtic while Owen Garvan is an old hand with Ipswich Town) and lower league backgrounds (keeper Shane Redmond is with Darlington, the lowest-ranked club in England while Cian Hughton's with Lincoln City) but the side was still outclassed by the Armenians, who themselves finished second bottom of their group in the last qualifiers, ahead of only Liechtenstein.
A year ago, the future did look bright as Givens' side had a decent little run: they had a well-deserved draw in a friendly at home to a very good German side which went on to win the U21 European title later that year (hammering England 4-0 in the final) and also beat Spain in a friendly at home.
But the qualifiers started badly, with a 3-0 loss at home to Turkey, didn't get any better with draws against Estonia, Georgia, Switzerland and Georgia again, -- with last night's clash the nadir.
"It was another poor performance from the team when we thought we'd do better and we didn't play well, we made them look a decent side," said boss Givens.
"We misplaced passes and miscontrolled the ball, and it's hard to understand. But I am not considering my position in the slightest.
"There are sections of the press that have their own agendas but I am about producing players, I have said that from the first day I came in to the job, that's what I am here for. I don't like losing games and I don't like it when the team plays poorly, I will consider my position if somebody in the FAI comes to me and says it, but I certainly would be going on journalists' opinions."
Don Givens Irish U21 record (2000-10)
Overall -- Played 85, Won 29, Drew 22, Lost 34
Competitive -- Played 43, Won 11, Drew 11, Lost 21