MU17 | O'Brien reflects on last season and upcoming campaign
Just days after the elimination from the Elite Phase and O’Brien was already preparing for the next campaign. Assessment days for next season’s squad were already booked in the diary and O’Brien headed to Sweden to join Paul Osam’s MU16s at a UEFA Development Tournament – an opportunity to assess his options for the U17 EURO Qualifiers First Round in Norway in October.
Last week he was able to look at his options more closely with a domestic-based assessment day in Dublin - another is scheduled for this week.
It's been non-stop for the former Cork City-man since the Elite Phase in March and now, a few months on after missing out on this season’s finals in Israel, O’Brien has had an opportunity to look back on the highs, lows and learnings from last year's international season.
Earlier in the campaign the 2005-born group flew through their First Round of qualifiers with a 5-0 win over Andorra, followed by a 2-0 win against North Macedonia before sealing top spot with a 2-2 draw against Poland. This came off the back of a double-header against Mexico in Cork that saw both nations win a game apiece – 2-1 and 0-2 respectively.
But the Elite Phase would prove a step too far with defeats against Portugal and Finland and a draw against Bulgaria in their final game.
Reflecting on the 2021/22 campaign, O’Brien said: “Our aim was to get to the Elite Phase – that was our main objective. But there’s no hiding the fact that we were bitterly disappointed not to make the finals. It’s important that a nation like ours consistently qualifies for the Elite Phase but make no mistake, our overall goal is to represent our country at a European Championship. There were a lot of lessons learned in those qualifiers that you hope will stand to the players going forward.
“With the 17s age group, it’s really learning about competitive and tournament football that we try and educate them on. Like a lot of countries, this group only completed half a season at 15s and missed a lot of football through COVID.”
The MU17s class of 21/22 were unique as they had qualified for the Elite Phase with not a single player playing at an English academy. In fact, of the 16 clubs represented at Irish MU17 international level last season 11 of them were Irish.
O’Brien says he’s ‘proud’ to cap so many domestically-based players and says it’s not just Brexit that has paved the way for this scenario. The Head Coach puts it down to the hard work of the players and their National League clubs.
“The impact of Brexit means the majority of players are now home based," says O'Brien. "This means we have a very different season to most. It’s going to be difficult going forward and something that will have to be factored into the development of the international set-up.
“There’s an enormous amount of work going on with the National League clubs and we need to find the best solution for our players.
“There’s a bigger challenge for us with the Elite Phase going forward - it’s something we always want to get to. In my view, the situation now is the players have a good start to the season then they go into a longer off season. That’s a big challenge when you come to the Elite Phase which comes around in March.”
O’Brien says one of the highs of the season was when more than 1,000 fans came out to Turner’s Cross for the Under-17s season opener against beat Mexico. However, his particularly highlight was that first get-together post lockdown.
He said: “The highlight, without a doubt, was just getting back with the group when we first got together last July.
“It was great to be together again having been off for so long. With all things considered and the time off due to COVID, we still achieved a lot. We had difficult circumstances to deal with during the season and I felt we handled that professionally. I’m very proud of what the players and the staff accomplished.”
After a summer of assessment days the new batch of MU17s will return to international football. Games in the September window are being lined-up before October’s qualifiers where Ireland will come up against hosts Norway, as well as Armenia and Belarus.
O'Brien added: “The next group is the 2006s for the season ahead. Technically now they’re with us in the Under-17s, having finished their season with the games in Sweden. The big plus for us is they have another international season under their belt and have produced some great performances under Paul (Osam). I look forward to working with them and a new generation of Under-17s.”