“Youth can help, they will play with no fear”

Keith Long 25/8/2020

EUROPA LEAGUE First Qualifying Round
Fehérvár FC v Bohemian FC
Thursday August 27, 2020
MOL Aréna Sóstó, 6.30pm local time/5.30pm Irish time
Live on stream.bohemians.ie

Bohemians make our long-awaited return to European football tonight as clear underdogs but manager Keith Long said his side have confidence, are eager to prove themselves on the bigger stage and are not without hope.

Tonight, they face Hungarians Fehérvár, who have taken points off Chelsea and have beaten Bordeaux in this competition in recent seasons.

In contrast to that pedigree, Long has a talented but inexperienced squad with an average age of just 23, and just four of his players have played in a European qualifier before.

Long said: “We are very inexperienced at this level. Keith Buckley, Rob Cornwall, Keith Ward and Dinny Corcoran have played at this level but we are otherwise a very young squad – the seventh youngest squad in Europe’s top divisions.

“It is going to be a big step-up in class against Fehérvár. But our performances since the restart give us real hope and certainly the boys are full of confidence.

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“They have been absolutely brilliant. We can ask no more of them. Youth can help you in one sense in that they will play with no fear and some of these boys have been away at international tournaments so they do have a bit of a taste for it.

“We have a lot of young players who have been involved in Ireland U21 games, Ireland U19 games, and we have six who have played in the Uefa Youth League with our U19s over the past two seasons.

“It’s another step or two up in class again but that is what you want. We are looking forward to the game, the boys are excited about testing themselves against different opposition.

“We have set a target for the players to get through this round. We have asked that of them. We are up against it and we are clearly the underdogs. The opposition is the best-resourced club in Hungary with a lot of international players from many different countries. But we are not without hope.”

While his team lacks experience at this level, so too does Long himself as he takes charge of a European game for the first time in his sixth season at the helm. It is an opportunity he is relishing.

The 46-year-old took over ahead of the 2015 season with the Gypsies tipped by many for relegation, but now sees his side second in the table and back in Europe. It has been quite the journey.

He said: “It shows how far we have come together as a club. It was a brilliant season last year and it is great that we have been able to get to this point that we have European football. It’s why we are in the game as we want to test ourselves at the highest level that we possibly can.

“Really what we want is a good level of performance. We have tried to analyse the opposition as best we can. It’s a different level of opposition to what we are used to and I am no different to the players, I am really looking forward to it as are the rest of the staff.”

While Long and his players look forward to a game on European soil, there is a huge sense of regret that they will not be joined in Székesfehérvár by the fans who helped get them there.

Long said: “Football hasn’t been the same without the supporters. The fans were pivotal in getting us over the line last year, there is no doubt about it, in games when we were hanging on or trying to get over the line.

“We started to believe we could get Europe last year when Michael Barker scored a last-minute winner down in Waterford. That’s when we first heard the chant of ‘we’re going abroad’ that night. That spurred us on. We lived in hope since that moment.

“To go away without those supporters – there’s a whole generation who haven’t experienced European football – is a bitter pill to swallow.

“They certainly would have turned out in possibly unprecedented numbers to support the team in Europe. We just hope they can get behind the team by watching the stream.

“We want to represent the club and do those fans proud. Progressing in Europe would obviously be of great financial benefit to the club.

“But uppermost in our thoughts since we returned from the lockdown has been our supporters and the way they have got behind us at every turn.

“The players are extremely conscious of who they represent and who they play for. Without the supporters’ help and financial backing, we wouldn’t be in the position we are in today.

“The players bring that in their minds onto the pitch tonight and hopefully we can do the club and fans proud.”

Derek Pender celebrates qualifying for Europe in Richmond Park last October – he is co-commentator tonight (Stephen Burke)

That sense of togetherness and progress at the club between the first team and its supporters is echoed in other sections of the club too.

Qualifying for Europe with such a young squad was in itself a remarkable achievement, but the age profile of Long’s first team is no coincidence.

As Long mentioned, Bohs have the seventh youngest squad across all top divisions.

Even more encouraging is that 12 of Bohs’ squad of 26 have either come through the Bohs-SKB U17s or Bohemians U19s, or were previously developed by our partners at St Kevin’s.

The player pathway is reaping dividends, and the experience of playing in the Uefa Youth League in 2018 and 2019 should stand to some of his young guns too.

Long added: “We were even younger last year when we qualified. Some of the players came into the team at a crucial point to get us over the line at a crucial point – the likes of Ross Tierney and Dawson Devoy were exceptional and belied their years in terms of their performances.

“It’s great for the club that we have 46% of our players have come through either the Bohs-SKB U17s, our U19s, or were developed at St Kevin’s previously.

“We have a clear pathway for players now through the age groups. We have young players coming behind through our U19s now too like Jack Moylan and Gavin Molloy, who have been in and around the first team.

“Then you’ve got Evan Ferguson, Robbie Mahon, Jamie Mullins for the Bohs-SKB U17s who are doing really well. It’s great that we have that class of player coming through our system.

“You can see from the make-up of our first team squad the benefits of this pathway, and it bodes well for the future too.”

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