Jim Crawford: Ireland’s U21 boss on Stephen Kenny, his rise and the U21s shot at history

Jim Crawford

Jim Crawford’s rise as a coach has been a significant one..

Over the last decade, there has been a coaching revolution in Ireland. The advent of Uefa’s coaching requirements has led to a golden age in the development of Irish coaching, with many benefitting from it.

Of those, Ireland U21 boss Jim Crawford is one who has, having cut his teeth in coaching following the end of his playing days in the League of Ireland.

As a result, he has been entrusted with steering this latest generation of Ireland U21 stars, as they seek to create their own bit of history, by qualifying for their first ever major tournament at the level.

The formation of Jim Crawford the coach.

Crawford’s task has not been an easy one, although challenges are something he is well used to.

Rather than being able to pick every eligible player at the U21 age-group, the Chicago-born former Shelbourne midfielder has been forced to adapt, with many of those eligible to play U21s football now with Stephen Kenny’s senior squad.

Gavin Bazunu, Jason Knight, Nathan Collins, Adam Idah, Andrew Omobamidele and Troy Parrott are just six of those in question, with plenty others probably missed.

But almost 14 years ago, it is unlikely that Crawford would have thought he would be in his position as current Ireland U21 boss, after taking his first job at management with Shamrock Rovers in 2008.

In charge for a brief spell, Crawford sought to further his horizons coaching wise after leaving the Hoops, taking on a role with the FAI as an ETP [Emerging Talent Programme] coach, before then having a stint with Ireland’s U19 side as an assistant coach to Paul Doolin.

While doing that, he also played an intrinsic part of the FAI’s coach education programme, working as a tutor to up and coming young coaches in professional football, while continuing to educate himself.

“It has come full circle for me [with the 21s now],” he explains when speaking to Pundit Arena. “It has given me a lot of context and balance coming through that pathway when you come in as an assistant to Paul Doolin and then with Stephen Kenny at the Ireland U21s.

“I worked as a coach with Alan Reynolds at Waterford, and I learned so much there as well as the U18s where I was for a number of years. You have a lot of transferable skills you can use as an assistant and a coach educator that you can bring into your own environment.

“It’s been excellent and I love the role [with the 21s]. I love the players we have at the moment at our disposal at the minute. They are fantastic professionals.

“A lot of the conversations I’ve had revolve around if I had this player or that player, but for me, it is about the group we have who have got us here.

“It makes the whole thing worthwhile not only for me, but for the staff. We have a group of players here who are on the verge of creating history with the Irish U21s.

“If we can do that, what a springboard that will be for their careers. They will be playing against the best European’s, and they will get a great exposure. There is a real development in that where they can go on and fulfil their potential as professional footballers.”

“From where I was then to where I am now, it was a lot of work, but it was a fantastic experience..”

Not only does Crawford have a real passion for coaching, he has a genuine interest in learning how to be the best version of himself in a coaching capacity.

While managing the Ireland U21s, the former Newcastle United player is also completing a Masters in Coaching Science at the University of Limerick, alongside Ireland U15 boss Jason Donohue.

Most in his position would stop at the Uefa Pro License, but Crawford seeks challenges head on, and is not one to shirk away from any.

That is no surprise, however, as seen by his first foray into management. After calling time on his career, Crawford took over at Shamrock Rovers following the dismissal of Pat Scully in 2008.

That move came just a few years after beginning his coaching career with Shelbourne’s underage set-up towards the latter end of his own playing career.

“That, for me, was a real eye-opening experience,” he said on his time in charge of the Hoops. “But it showed me the gaps were between where I was, and needed to be.

“You are uncomfortable and you were dealing with senior players at a massive club. With that, it gives you a drive to be the best possible coach you can be.

“From where I was then to where I am now, it was a lot of work, but it was a fantastic experience. I was designing sessions to suit the needs of the top players in the country at the time.

“Stephen Rice, Eoin Doyle and Padraig Amond were all there at the time, and it was a great experience.”

Stephen Kenny.

From there, Crawford went around the long way to reach the level he is at today.

And after impressing with the Ireland U18s as Head Coach, Stephen Kenny came calling to prise him away to join his new-look U21 set-up at the time, where he has flourished.

“I don’t know how you measure things as a coach, but we deal in a currency of wins. For me, I am passionate about developing players, and at the same time we were getting a few wins, and beat Belgium and Holland with the 18s. That obviously turned Stephen’s head.

“I had numerous conversations with Stephen before about certain players when he was at Dundalk, and I’ve played against his teams. That was how our paths crossed, and I then got a call to meet him when he asked me to come in as 21s coach.

“I didn’t even need to think about it, because of what he achieved at Dundalk was phenomenal. Where he had them, and then brought them to, I don’t think will ever be done again.

“The way they performed in the group stages of European competitions was outstanding and it had me thinking, how does he do it.

“I was delighted, but it was an opportunity to be educated by a top, top manager..”

A chance to create history..

Under Kenny, Crawford undoubtedly flourished, leading to his eventual promotion to Ireland U21 boss, when Kenny moved on to take over from Mick McCarthy.

While the last campaign ended in heartache against Iceland, there is an opportunity at least for Crawford to make the most of his newfound opportunity with a new crop of talent, who, like their manager, strive to be best versions they can be.

“These[games] are big,” he replied. “But you can’t take away from the potential Bosnia and Montenegro have. These are all lads who are playing first-team football with their clubs and are good players.

“Italy only beat Bosnia by the odd goal in their two games, and Montenegro drew with Italy in the last window. For me, Italy are by far the best team in this group with the players they have.

“Saying that, they beat us 2-0 in Tallaght Stadium, but we could have nicked a draw.

“That would have been harsh on the game itself as they were very good, but the first two games of this window are going to be a real challenge for the players, and are something we are really looking forward to.”

In chasing history, Crawford also explained that he will be relying on his players who have brought them to this Ireland U21 side to its current point, rather than blooding in new stars for the new campaign.

“I think we owe it to the players that got us here to this stage [to pick them],” he adds. “At times, you might get managers who might try to blood young players into their team with a view to get into the team next season.

“For me at this time, the players who have got us this far are definitely worth giving an opportunity in the final window of the campaign.”

With two wins, Ireland would be virtually guaranteed a play-off berth to reach the U21 European Championship’s, while three wins could see them go through automatically.

That scenario may only unfold if Italy drop points in their two games before their last against Ireland on June 14th.

Tickets for Ireland’s U21 home double header against Bosnia and Montenegro on June 3rd and June 6th can be found here.

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