Republic of Ireland Under-21 manager Jim Crawford labelled the crop of players under his watch as an "exceptional group" but stressed that there needed to be greater investment in Ireland's academy structure to produce footballers over the longer term. 

The newly appointed manager appeared on Sunday Sport to talk about both his new role and his own playing career, which saw him win PFAI Young Player of the Year at Bohemians, spend three years at Kevin Keegan's Newcastle before returning home to win a glut of league titles with Shelbourne in the first half of the noughties. 

Crawford, who has been part of the under-21 management team for the past two years, was appointed manager in April following Stephen Kenny's eventual elevation to the senior manager role. 

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Ireland's tilt at reaching the country's first ever Under-21 European championship finals had been chugging along impressively with home and away victories over both Sweden and Armenia lifting the side to top of the table, albeit with top seeds Italy having played two games less.

With only one automatic spot available, unless the team can qualify as best runner-up, Crawford is aware of the stiff challenges ahead but insists that he has 'no fear' given the pick available to him. 

"I think they're an exceptional group of players. They really are and I'd give us every chance. The thing is they're three really difficult games.

Lee O'Connor after scoring in Ireland's 4-1 demolition of Sweden last autumn

"We're away to Italy in October. It's not going to be easy, they were the favourites to win the group. But anyone who saw the game in Tallaght Stadium that night will agree with me that we've nothing to fear. 

"Our next game will be at home in November where we play Iceland, which is going to be an extremely competitive game. They're physical, athletic, very dangerous at set-pieces, well organised and structured. That itself is going to a challenge, they beat us already in Iceland 1-0.

"The final game is away to Luxembourg. No doubt about it they're going to get bodies behind the ball and then it's up to us to open them up, create chances and score goals."

While Crawford is relatively bullish about the short-to-medium term, he believes Irish football's underage structures require greater investment.  And though he lauds Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers for leading the way domestically, he spies a problem with their growing supremacy vis-á-vis the rest of the league. 

"I think we need a lot more resources to help the academies. The academies are our long-term players. 

"From the short-to-medium term, we've got exciting talent out there, from Troy Parrott, Adam Idah, Jason Knight, Jason Molumby and that's only name a few out of a number of players that are exciting prospects. 

"We need to invest in our academies. The FAI and the clubs need to work together and get other stakeholders involved to really develop top class academies to help develop our players for the longer term. 

"The league at the minute, there's really two teams who have the resources, they're Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers. I'm all for teams leading the way but we need a competitive league. We need four or five competitive teams to help bring on the talent that's playing in the national league at the first-team level."

Republic of Ireland centurion John O'Shea was ushered into the under-21 management set-up as part of last month's re-jig and Crawford is confident the former Manchester United's defender's experience will be of huge benefit to the emerging generation of Irish players. 

"I've met John a number of time and I think he's going to be an invaluable member of our staff. You only have to look at his playing career, the environments that he was involved in over in the UK with Manchester United and Sunderland, the number of times he's played for his country. 

"Probably above all, John's got great values and he's a great fella. So I'm looking forward to working with John."