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brennan's brief Watching Italy and Portugal young guns made me realise how far Irish boys are behind the rest

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Not spoiled for choice: Ireland manager Stephen Kenny during a training session at PGA Catalunya Resort in Girona, Spain during the week. Photo: Pedro Salado/Sportsfile

Not spoiled for choice: Ireland manager Stephen Kenny during a training session at PGA Catalunya Resort in Girona, Spain during the week. Photo: Pedro Salado/Sportsfile

Not spoiled for choice: Ireland manager Stephen Kenny during a training session at PGA Catalunya Resort in Girona, Spain during the week. Photo: Pedro Salado/Sportsfile

Stephen Kenny is currently grafting on the training pitch in Spain with his Irish squad as they prepare for friendlies against Andorra tomorrow and Hungary next week.

Top men like Seamus Coleman and John Egan are present and correct. Other squad members have the ‘tight hamstrings’ that always afflict players at this time of the football season, while others are trying to sort out their club careers having been told, publicly or privately, that they can quit their current employment.

The Irish manager is talking up the young talent he has with him, hoping that one or two of them will come forward and become regular internationals, trying to fill the void that sees the current Irish team very short of players in the 24 to 28 age bracket.

But the task ahead of him was put into context last Monday night when some channel surfing on Sky Sports meant I came across a live quarter-final of the European Under-21 Championship currently being played in Slovenia and Hungary.

Portugal won the match 5-3. In fact, they won it three times, as they led 2-0 and 3-1. But a plucky Italian team would not lie down and they forced extra-time, only to lose there when playing a man short after one of their number got a second yellow card.

What astonished me was the technical quality and skill on show. Passes played to feet were instantly controlled, a brilliant overhead kick was the source of Portugal’s first goal and each team scored a goal because their players checked their runs to make sure that offside traps were not sprung.

How many times do we see our young players make runs that we, watching the match, know are going to take them into offside positions? In this match both sets of forwards were very aware of where the last defender was and slowed down to make sure they were onside.

Italy topped Ireland’s qualifying group for these Finals and the young Boys in Green actually did well in their head-to-head meetings with the young Azzurri. It was poor performances in games against Iceland that cost Jim Crawford’s team the chance to qualify.

But this quarter-final produced football that was way above the quality of skill and class that I have seen from any young Irish team since the glory days of Brian Kerr’s kids over 20 years ago. But then these lads are already getting senior appearances with AC Milan, Fiorentina, Benfica and Porto. Look at how our boys are struggling to break into the top team at their clubs.

Do yourself a favour tomorrow night and tune into the semi-finals of this U-21 competition, they are two great rival pairings in Portugal-Spain and Holland-Germany. As well as being entertained, you will realise how far Irish international football has to travel to be competitive again.

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