5 Ireland U21 players who could soon graduate to the senior team

Will Smallbone and others that Stephen Kenny might be tempted to call upon.

Will Smallbone (file pic).
Will Smallbone (file pic).
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

1. Will Smallbone

Smallbone’s return from injury amid the second half of the Irish U21 side’s campaign was a big reason for their upturn in fortune. He helped Jim Crawford’s side finish strongly to secure a historic qualification for a first-ever playoff. The midfielder was particularly impressive during the June window, with three goals in two games key to Ireland safely navigating potentially tricky ties against Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. Moreover, with 10 appearances under his belt so far on loan at Championship side Stoke this season, it feels only a matter of time before he gets a senior call-up.

2. Conor Coventry

When Josh Cullen was ruled out of Ireland’s match with Armenia on Tuesday due to suspension, some might have argued that the most natural replacement was on U21s duty. Both graduates of the West Ham underage system, there was no real obvious successor to Cullen in the senior squad. Jeff Hendrick, Jason Knight and Jayson Molumby all prefer to charge forward and don’t have the same tendency to sit deep and sweep up in front of the back four — a skill in which both the Burnley star and Coventry specialise. The record caps holder at U21 level, Coventry’s Ireland underage career is now officially over after Jim Crawford’s side lost their playoff to Israel on penalties. So it would be no major surprise to see him elevated to the senior squad for the friendlies against Norway and Malta in November. However, one thing counting against him is his lack of game time at West Ham, with just one start in the Europa Conference League under his belt this season. A loan move similar to the successful one he experienced at MK Dons last year could certainly aid his cause.

3. Evan Ferguson

Still only 17 years old but described as a player of “high potential” by Crawford, the Meath teenager still has plenty of time to impress at U21 level if necessary but could be fast-tracked as the likes of Troy Parrott and Gavin Bazunu were before him. He scored a brilliant header during the first leg of the Israel playoff in Tallaght but also looked raw at times and still has some work to do if he is to progress further. But with a Premier League debut at Brighton already under his belt, you wouldn’t bet against him being called up soon, as a recent hat-trick in an U21 game for Brighton suggests he is becoming too good for that level. Kenny also often likes having a big man up top, and given Adam Idah’s ongoing fitness concerns, Ferguson could potentially soon fill the void.

4. Eiran Cashin

Has been one of the standouts for the 21s in recent times. His impressive reading of the game and ability on the ball would certainly endear him to Kenny and facilitate what would surely be a fairly seamless transition to the senior setup. He is also highly thought of at Derby for whom he has made 10 appearances with the senior team this season, having broken into the side under Wayne Rooney last year, after an issue with registration amid the club’s financial troubles delayed his debut for a few months. The only problem as far as he’s concerned is centre-back is unquestionably the area where Ireland have the most strength in depth — Dara O’Shea, Nathan Collins, Andrew Omobamidele, Shane Duffy, John Egan and Darragh Lenihan are among the names who are probably all still ahead of him in the pecking order. Nonetheless, just as the similarly peripheral Lenihan was given a chance recently against Ukraine with a number of players out injured, it’s not hard to imagine Cashin getting an opportunity if some of Ireland’s more established players suddenly become unavailable.

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5. Aaron Connolly

An obvious call and certainly a viable one. As badly as he admits himself his career has tailed off in the last year or so, Connolly is still only 22. He was slightly isolated on his own up front during the second leg against Israel, but looked like one of the best players on the pitch during the first game between the sides and was named man of the match. Connolly’s attitude has sometimes been questioned but he gave what seemed to be a heartfelt interview following the recent game in Tallaght, telling reporters: “Hopefully, people can see that I am hungrier than ever to play for Ireland. When the chance came to play in a game like that I couldn’t say ‘no’. I’m hungrier than ever to put on a green shirt at any level now, just hungry to kick on again and rebuild my career and probably show some people that I am not done yet.” But the player must maintain the type of consistency he has lacked too often if he is to add to the eight caps already won for Ireland at senior level.

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Paul Fennessy

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