Crawford believes local boys have every chance of making big impact for Under 21s

By Stephen Leonard

REPUBLIC of Ireland Under 21 manager Jim Crawford is hopeful a number of local players will earn the chance to make a serious impact on the team’s European Championship qualifying campaign which starts in September.

The Tallaght man will get the opportunity to view much of the talent he has at his disposal when his side faces off against Wales in a friendly in Wrexham on Friday, March 26.

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Gavin Bazunu from Firhouse during a Republic of Ireland U21 training session in Abbotstown

The likes of former Shamrock Rovers goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu from Firhouse, former Cherry Orchard defender Nathan Collins and Tallaght lads Jonathan Afolabi and Mipo Odubeko all have the potential to play a serious part in the Under 21s drive for a first ever appearance at the European Finals.

“Gavin Bazunu has got serious potential to be a really top goalkeeper” insisted Crawford.

“I know he's well received at Manchester City. They think very highly of him and you only have to look at how he's playing at Rochdale.

“He's playing week-in, week out, and for such a young lad playing at a really good level.

“I've watched all his games and he's doing exceptionally well although Rochdale are leaking goals, but that's the way they play. They play a very open, expansive way that is going to challenge Gavin in more ways than not.

“But he'll certainly learn from that and I think he's a player with serious potential.

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Mipo Odubeko, Nathan Collins and Jonathan Afolabi are all highly rated by Ireland Under 21 manager Jim Crawford

“He's a fantastic attitude and always wants to learn, always challenging our goalkeeping coach Rene Gilmartin on how to get better and that's important.

“Nathan Collins, it's there for everybody to see the amount of interest that's been heading his way from the likes of Leicester, Burnley and other teams. It shows his potential.

“Another player who works extremely hard on his game. He's very level-headed and I think he can be whoever he wants to be in the game.

“I've worked with Nathan since the Emerging Talent programme and he's never changed. He's a fantastic lad.

“I've been watching him at Stoke. He's played right back, he's played centre back, showing his versatility, and I know Michael O'Neill is a keen fan of Nathan too.

“I just hope I can have him for most the 21s campaign.

“Johnny Afolabi, he's on loan at Dundee at the minute. Johnny has had injuries and I think Johnny needs a run of games to get in the flow and the speed of the game for sure.

“He's working very hard at Dundee at the minute and Dundee have brought in another striker during the window so it's going to be a challenge for Johnny.

“But I've every faith in him being a success at Dundee where he can clock in more competitive minutes, get some more goals and go back to Celtic for pre-season in a far better place.

“We've got Mipo [Odubeko]. I had Mipo in a stand-by squad for October, pre-Italy and he picked up an injury and obviously we weren't going to bring him in then.

“But he's a fella who I've always had huge respect for as a footballer and a person.

“I seen him play numerous times for St Joey's Boys and he's a really fantastic talent and somebody who falls under that high-potential umbrella.

“I was delighted for him making his debut in an earlier FA Cup round and coming on in Old Trafford is fantastic, but it's only the start for him.

“He's still eligible to play with our Under 19s so we'll see what happens come March” he added.

Crawford has also underscored the potential of former St Pat’s netminder Brian Maher.

“We brought in Brian Maher towards the end of the campaign in the last window.

“I had Brian when I was the Under 18s Head Coach and he's never let me down. He has a fantastic attitude and you only have to see what he achieved last year with Bray when he went on loan from St Pat's.

“He was Player of the Year and he was voted in to the First Division Team of the Year, which is remarkable for someone so young in a position that a lot of people say 'Oh you need a lot of experience back there.

“But him and Gavin [Bazunu] have shown that once you're good enough, you're old enough.

“So Brian is there or thereabouts with the squad. There are a few goalkeepers that he's got to challenge with to get into the squad, but Brian's got the composure and the attitude you need for a successful career in the game, that's for sure.”

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