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Presseye/William Cherry/INPHO Armstrong Oko-Flex (right) pictured playing for Ireland at underage level.
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'His career was like a little bit of driftwood' - Backing for West Ham's rejuvenated Irish teen
Armstrong Oko-Flex earned a first call-up to Jim Crawford’s squad on Wednesday.

JIM CRAWFORD says Armstrong Oko-Flex’s first U21 call-up is a reward after a recent improvement in fortunes at club level.

The 19-year-old attacker had spells with Arsenal and Celtic at underage level. He even made a first-team debut for the Scottish club last January, albeit after 13 senior players were forced to self-isolate and missed the match with Hibernian as a result.

The St Kevin’s Boys youth product subsequently moved to West Ham last June, scoring in a pre-season friendly against his former club and impressing at U23 level this season.

Oko-Flex was born to Nigerian parents in Dublin, and Crawford was asked whether the delay in calling up the player was due to an issue with eligibility, but the manager instead cited his improved form as the reason he has been given a chance to impress.

“There‌ ‌wasn’t‌ ‌a‌ ‌doubt.‌ ‌‌He‌ ‌certainly‌ ‌committed‌ ‌to‌ ‌our‌ ‌colours‌ ‌that’s‌ ‌for‌ ‌sure,” Crawford explained. ‌“It ‌was‌ ‌just‌ ‌a‌ ‌case‌ ‌his‌ ‌career‌ ‌was‌ ‌like‌ ‌a‌ ‌little‌ ‌bit‌ ‌of‌ ‌driftwood.‌ ‌He‌ ‌was‌ ‌at‌ ‌Celtic,‌ ‌he‌ ‌got‌ ‌in,‌ ‌and‌ ‌played‌ ‌a‌ ‌few‌ ‌minutes‌ ‌when‌ ‌Covid‌ ‌took‌ ‌over‌ ‌their‌ ‌squad‌ ‌but‌ ‌other‌ ‌than‌ ‌that,‌ ‌he‌ ‌wasn’t‌ ‌featuring‌ ‌that‌ ‌much.‌ ‌

“He‌ ‌did ‌well‌ ‌getting‌ ‌to‌ ‌West‌ ‌Ham.‌ ‌And‌ ‌the‌ ‌games‌ ‌I’ve‌ ‌seen‌ ‌them‌ ‌playing,‌ ‌he’s‌ ‌certainly‌ ‌been‌ ‌a‌ ‌standout ‌player‌ ‌in‌ ‌the‌ ‌23s. ‌He’s‌ ‌coming‌ ‌in‌ ‌off‌ ‌the‌ ‌left‌ ‌and‌ ‌he’s‌ ‌scoring‌ ‌goals‌ ‌at‌ ‌the‌ ‌minute‌.‌ ‌He‌ ‌is‌ ‌a‌ ‌talent‌ ‌and‌ ‌we’ve‌ ‌got‌ ‌to‌ ‌protect‌ ‌players‌ ‌like‌ ‌Armstrong‌ ‌who‌ ‌are‌ ‌creative‌ ‌and‌ ‌talented.‌

“He can play up there [as a striker] but for us he’ll be out wide, whether that’s on the right or left. But who knows? You bring them in training, you play 11 v 11 games, and you throw him up top as a nine, you might see something. But realistically, he won’t.”

Crawford said there was no update on the future of another young, exciting attacking talent on the books at West ham.

Mipo Odubeko is currently injured after going on loan to Huddersfield, having made headlines earlier this year when it was confirmed that he had yet to make a decision on his international future and so was absent, despite initially being named in Crawford’s squad.

One youngster who is expected to feature in the future though is 19-year-old Darragh Burns.

The St Pat’s winger has impressed this season, scoring four goals in the Premier Division, while he was a standout player in the club’s recent FAI Cup semi-final win over Dundalk.

Having initially represented Northern Ireland at underage level, Burns is currently in the process of switching international allegiance to the Republic.

“Darragh is keen to play, which is great news for myself and it’s in the hands of legal at the minute,” Crawford said. “That’s just standard procedure to get everything over the line, to change an association, and it can be a long process.

“Similar to Joel Bagan, who played with Scotland in a development tournament, and there was a lot of work around that to get him over the line and we eventually did.

“He’s done fantastic with Pat’s. Stevie O’Donnell and his staff have done amazing work with him, and you can see the by-product of their work on the pitch. The sooner it happens the better.

“He’s been doing well and he certainly would have been there or thereabouts [if available]. He’s somebody that can go again for the next campaign. He’s an exciting player to bring in, that’s for sure.”

Ireland next face two crucial home games against Italy (12 November) and Sweden (16 November). 

Crawford suggests it is essential to win at least one of those fixtures to keep realistic hopes of qualification alive and Italy in particular is looking like a tough challenge with their squad’s abundance of first-team experience at club level, notably Milan starlet Sandro Tonali.

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“I think Tonali would be the only player that was involved in the last campaign [when Ireland played them].

“So it’s a new group but Italy would be an excellent team. Believe it or not, I think they’re a better team this time around than they were last time.

“Tonali is more experienced having had a campaign under his belt, playing in AC Milan’s first team.

“You’ve got Matteo Lovato who plays with Atalanta and was on the bench on Tuesday night against Manchester United, but he’s played in Serie A games.

“Nicolo Rovella, who plays with Genoa in Serie A week in week out and there are a lot of players playing in their first teams.

“You’ve got a couple of Serie B players — Lorenzo Lucca plays up top for Pisa. And they have a midfielder, the wide player, Lorenzo Colombo who plays with SPAL in Serie B.

“So it’s a great test for our group and a great opportunity for us to match ourselves up against one of the Euros’ better teams.”

More in relation to his own side, he added: “Playing first-team football, it’s a huge thing. Why? It’s the intensity they’re playing at. That they have to make decisions. They’re being challenged technically, physically, whether it’s League One or League Two, or the Championship with a couple of our players. That has a huge bearing on selection.”

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