David Connell led the Republic of Ireland's U19 women to the European semi-finals last year. He speaks to UEFA.com about the U17s' bid to match them this term.
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Five years ago they were, sensationally, a penalty shoot-out away from winning the UEFA European Women's Under-17 Championship; now the Republic of Ireland are aiming to do similar in Iceland this summer.
First, though, they must get past an elite round group containing England, the Netherlands and Hungary, which Ireland host in April, but coach David Connell has impressive credentials having led the Women's U19s to the European semi-finals last term. There they lost to the Netherlands yet they did beat England in the group stage on their finals debut, and while this season's U19s were pipped in their qualifying round, Connell is hopeful his junior side can come up trumps.
UEFA.com: What do you think of your elite round group?
David Connell: It's without doubt a tough group, but we play at home. We have a good little squad, of course we are going to be tested. Three great football nations in general – and obviously England, the Netherlands will be particularly strong.
When we looked at the Under-19 finals, you know Spain, England and Sweden in our group, obviously people didn't think we would have a chance, so we proved a lot of people wrong there. And as I say, England and Ireland is always a special game, as obviously they are neighbours and there is a lot of history, but it's still a game the girls will be up for. With the Netherlands, we didn't perform [against them] in the Under-19 semi-final in Norway, so even though it's a different age group we will be looking for a little bit of revenge.
UEFA.com: How do you prepare the girls?
Connell: Last year we missed out, on goal difference, on making the [U17] finals. And if I am right in saying, the Spanish manager, after they got to the final, said his toughest game was against the Irish in the elite stage. We were unlucky we lost 2-1 to them. And a lot of those girls are still with us. So it was a good experience. We like to think that will help them. But there is no doubt that this is a massive task for us. We certainly don't have anything near the resources or volume of players that most of the nations in our group have. But we want to overcome that by working hard with our league players.
UEFA.com: How good is this U17 squad?
Connell: I have worked with them and we were quietly confident we could get out of the qualifying round group in Serbia. We did that, we won the group, we were happy. A lot of players really stood up to what we were asking for. A lot of them grew in stature and grew in confidence and that gave them a lot of confidence coming into the elite phase. We also had two friendlies against Denmark where we played two completely different sides. We won one and lost the other. But we learned enough from them. The more games we can play against the top nations, the better. We need to look at certain areas where we need to improve, for example fitness where in the past that let us down.
I am particularly excited about this group of players and, again, it is at home in Ireland so we will get good crowds. It is over the Easter holiday and we will be looking forward to it.
UEFA.com: How much female talent do you have coming through?
Connell: We don't have a big volume of players and the leagues are kind of situated in certain areas of the country, and are obviously strong within the big suburban areas; Dublin is the largest league, it has the largest population, it is one and a half million of a four million population. That's to be expected.
We are happy, we are still in the process of probably developing the game in certain areas and trying to develop it even further in the areas where it is strong. We have league centres, like centres of excellence for the different age groups, which help tremendously. We are going back to a format of having regional centres, so the best of the league centres come into a regional centre. We scrapped them two years ago but have gone back to them.
So it's exciting times hopefully in Ireland. And the girls last summer in Norway have given the other girls a lot to aim for. Particularly this group, because we have two girls from those finals in Norway with us and their experience will be invaluable to the rest of the girls. We can surprise a few people but we are under no illusions, it's a difficult group.