On Wednesday, Ireland U19s take on Portugal in the semi-final of the European Championships in Armenia as they look to continue their exceptional run in the tournament.
Despite missing a host of regular starters, including the likes of Luca Connell, Troy Parrott and Adam Idah, Tom Mohan’s side impressed in qualifying from their group and now have an opportunity to take another scalp against a strong Portuguese outfit.
One man who will be watching the game closely is Ireland U21s manager Stephen Kenny. The former Dundalk boss recently spent a week with the squad in Armenia as he continues to work with the various underage setups.
Speaking to Pundit Arena, during the FAI’s Festival of Football in Duleek, Kenny was full of praise for Tom Mohan’s side and was keen to stress that their fantastic achievement in getting to the last four, should not be understated.
“It’s a very hard competition to get to first of all,” began Kenny.
“You’ve got to go through two qualifying series’ so it’s a great achievement to qualify for the finals. The best eight teams in Europe obviously Armenia being the hosts, so there was only really seven spots and some of the higher-ranked nations and the biggest nations didn’t qualify and to get through the group, it was right down to that last game.
“The Czech Republic equalised late and it was still in the balance, so it’s a terrific achievement from Tom Mohan and all of the staff and the players getting to the semi-finals and it was great to witness it. I’m really looking forward to the game.”
Mohan‘s side reached the semi-finals following a late victory against the Czech Republic thanks to a very tidy finish from Celtic midfielder Barry Coffey, having been played in on goal by another standout Joe Hodge.
Kenny had previously singled out Hodge for praise during the recent U17 European Championships but admitted that the strong Irish defence, which looked particularly strong against France, deserved recognition.
“A lot of the players have done very well. The back four have been a really tight unit, they’ve defended quite deep and counter attacked. The centre-backs have been a good pairing, Oisin McEntee and Mark McGuinness.”
Ireland did suffer a late blow in the victory on Sunday, with captain Lee O’Connor and striker Jonathan Afolabi both picking up yellow cards meaning they will miss the semi-final game.
Afolabi, who scored in the Czech win, has been one of Ireland most impressive performers, proving to be a real handful in his attacking and taking advantage of the opportunity a lack of Michael Obafemi, Troy Parrott and Adam Idah has afforded to him.
The 19-year-old is currently without a club having been released by Southampton towards the end of last season and having caught Stephen Kenny’s eye, the Irish U21s boss admitted that his form and in particular his attitude, have been a huge bonus for the Boys in Green.
“One of the things that has been a plus is the form of Jonathan Afolabi,” said Kenny.
“He’s been one of the best centre-forwards in the tournament without a doubt.
“A lot of players when they’re released from clubs it’s quite complex. Human emotion is what it is, some people maybe come home, get deflated and give up football.
“They fall out of love with the game for a year, it takes them sometimes a year to get the motivation back to get back playing. Jonathan has taken a setback but he hasn’t allowed that setback to set him back.
“He’s been very determined to show his quality and I think that was evident in Russia in the qualifying campaign, he was very prominent and I think he’s shown everyone a great example of how to react when you have been let go. He’s been exceptional.”