Alan Browne has challenged the Republic of Ireland to live up to the exploits of their predecessors by upsetting the odds to qualify for the World Cup finals.
Ireland launch their campaign with a tough trip to Belgrade to face Serbia on Wednesday evening, with Luxembourg waiting in the wings three days later.
With reigning European champions Portugal favourites to win Group A, which also includes Azerbaijan, Stephen Kenny’s men may have their work cut out, although that did not concern Jack Charlton, Mick McCarthy, Giovanni Trapattoni or Martin O’Neill as they led their sides to the finals of major tournaments.
Preston midfielder Browne said: “It’s a tough group. You know, I think any group would have been, any selection of teams. It’s international football, so it’s always going to be a tough one.
“On paper, people will probably rule us out, if we’re being realistic, given our recent results. We haven’t been doing well enough, so I’m sure the critics will have already ruled us out.
“But us as a team and a nation, we’re always ones to thrive off this and be the underdog and come out on top, and that’s what we’re looking to do.
“We’ve got to be as optimistic as possible. We’re going into every game to win it, be in no doubt about that.
“That’s what we’ve always done and we want to live up to teams that have gone before us, getting through to the big games and the big stages. We want to keep that going.”
Kenny is now eight games into a reign which has been blighted by injuries, and more so by coronavirus, and is yet to taste victory, with a heart-breaking penalty shoot-out defeat in Slovakia in October denying the Republic a play-off final bid for a place at the rescheduled Euro 2020 finals.
Ireland performed admirably in Bratislava, yet still returned home empty-handed, although Browne and his team-mates will not dwell on a major disappointment.
He said: “It seems like a long time ago, but in international football that’s the way it is because it’s so spread out. You get time to go back to your club and kind of put it behind you, and that’s what we’ve done.
“Certainly I have. I don’t want to dwell on that for too long because you can’t change the past, you can only affect the future, and that’s what we’ll look to do.”
Ireland’s last visit to Belgrade in September 2016 ended in a hard-fought 2-2 World Cup qualifying draw, a better result for the visitors than it was for the hosts, and new Serbia boss Dragan Stojkovic has already insisted Ireland “cannot play better” than his team.
Asked about Stojkovic’s comments, Browne said: “I’m unfazed by that. We expect to beat Serbia. I have no problem with that, as a manager you expect your team to go out and win.
“Fair play to him for coming out and saying that. A lot of people hide behind words and don’t say what they are thinking – but I know our manager will be expecting the same from us and we’ll see how we get on on the day.”
Kenny’s squad met up in Manchester on Sunday but Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher, one of the candidates to replace the injured Daren Randolph, will not be on the plane when it heads off on Monday.
Kelleher, who has been nursing an abdominal tear, has been withdrawn along with defender Kevin Long, midfielder Conor Hourihane and winger Callum O’Dowda, with Darragh Lenihan and Under-21s midfielder Conor Coventry being added to the party.