Talking Points

Smallbone sparkles, Doherty's lack of minutes, and no worries about Bazunu

Some of the talking points from Stephen Kenny’s squad announcement for the Euro 2024 qualifier against France.

STEPHEN KENNY YESTERDAY named a 25-man squad for the upcoming friendly with Latvia and the daunting Euro 2024 qualifier at home to France. Here are a few of the talking points thrown up by the selection. 

1) Evan Ferguson likely to start 

“Surely”, began the question to Stephen Kenny, “there is no real debate that Evan Ferguson is going to start?” 

Kenny batted it away and remained coy, but the 18-year-old is likely to start against France. He has proved himself he can cope against that calibre of opposition – he has created and scored goals when up against William Saliba and Ibrahima Konate, both of whom are in the French squad – and has already been part of the Irish senior squad, having come off the bench in both of the friendly games last November. 

“We’re delighted with him, it’s a great boost for us that he’s emerged”, said Kenny of Ferguson, and while he praised the characteristics of the other strikers in the squad, it is Ferguson who is most likely to start against France. It would cap an astonishing rise, speedy by anyone’s measurement.  

celtics-mikey-johnston-during-the-ladbrokes-scottish-premiership-match-at-celtic-park-glasgow Mikey Johnston playing for Celtic back in 2018. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

2) What Mikey Johnston will bring 

The only new face in the Irish squad is Mikey Johnston, the Scottish-born winger who has thrown his lot in with Ireland. Kenny counselled against expecting too much of Johnston in this window, and he has rarely thrown new call-ups right into the fray. Plus, like a few too many of Ireland’s players, he isn’t playing regularly: he hasn’t completed a full 90 minutes for Vitoria Guimaraes since the turn of the year.

Johnston is a right-footed winger who likes cutting in from the left, a profile of player Ireland lack but also don’t have an obvious home for in their 3-5-2 system. Kenny doesn’t see Johnston as an option at left wing-back, but instead as one of the two attacking players behind the striker in a 3-4-2-1, or as a central No.10 behind a striker if the formation is a slightly more defensive 3-5-1-1.  

Johnston is unlikely to play against France and while he might make an appearance against Latvia, the sense is that he may be more useful in the June window, when Ireland will have to break down the defences of Greece and Gibraltar.  

3) Collins’ lack of minutes less of a concern than Doherty’s 

Nathan Collins has abruptly found himself out of the Wolves team, thanks to Julen Lopetegui’s switch to a back four and recruitment of Craig Dawson. He did play 45 minutes against Tottenham a couple of weeks ago, however, and Kenny expressed little concern about Collins’ lack of minutes: “He has played a lot of football, so it is less of a concern than for some of the other players.” 

Among the concerns on that front is Matt Doherty, who has played all of 16 minutes since joining Atletico Madrid on the final day of the January transfer window. Doherty is a key player for Stephen Kenny and the role of right wing-back is particularly important against France, for it is down that flank that France are both most dangerous (Mbappe) and defensively vulnerable (Mbappe.) 

“It will probably be between his last game at Tottenham and the French game, for example, nearly eight weeks, possibly, so it’s not ideal”, said Kenny of Doherty. 

“He’s shown his capacity to be out of the team for periods and still maintain a high level of fitness, but it is far from ideal and he knows that and we know that.” 

gavin-bazunu Gavin Bazunu. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

4) No worries about Gavin Bazunu’s form 

Bazunu’s debut season as a Premier League starter has been turbulent, with Southampton bottom of the table and already onto their third manager of the campaign. Bazunu kept an impressive clean sheet at Old Trafford last weekend but has struggled at times, with FBRef’s stats for percentage of shots saved ranking Bazunu 108th of 109 goalkeepers across Europe’s top five leagues. (Only his compatriot Mark Travers was ranked below him.) 

“It’s hard to read the context of statistics”, replied Kenny when those stats were put to him. “I’m not blindly dismissing statistics, but I think he has played well recently. I know people were harping on about the goal against Leeds, maybe, that went in and there was a defender right in front of him. All of a sudden it was magnified, probably because of Southampton’s position as well. That’s the only goal in four games that he conceded in that period.  There are not many young goalkeepers in the Premier League. It’s hard for young goalkeepers to get an opportunity. You have to be prodigious. And he is. I think he is having a good spell at the moment. He is having a better spell, so there are not many goals going past him in the last few weeks.”  

5) Will Smallbone impresses 

Will Smallbone is back in the squad, having been called up in November without managing to get onto the pitch in either game. He has continued to impress on loan at Stoke City, however, his recent hat-trick of assists against Sunderland the headline act. Also handily for Smallbone, Stoke coach John O’Shea is now Kenny’s assistant. 

“The player that has impressed me most is probably Will Smallbone”, said Kenny. “He has really kicked on. He played well in periods of games earlier in the year, not all of the games, but some of them. He seems to have found a bit of consistency over the last six weeks. He is doing well for the manager there. It is the best period of a short career.”

Kenny sees Smallbone as one of the two ‘eights’ in his midfield trio, ie one of the guys playing in front of Josh Cullen. Jason Knight, Jayson Molumby, Alan Browne and Jeff Hendrick are his direct rivals for a spot in the team, but his inclusion has led to the jettisoning of a relative stalwart in Conor Hourihane. 

“I said to Conor, you are not in this squad but that doesn’t mean I won’t be ringing him on Saturday asking him to come back in the next squad”, said Kenny. “These players are all on standby, ready to go.”

6) Callum O’Dowda the form candidate at left wing-back

These squad announcements are generally low-stakes affairs but a certain section of support will always find a cause célèbre, and this month’s is Ryan Manning. Manning has been impressive for Swansea in the Championship but has seemingly never convinced Kenny, having not made an international appearance since the friendly win over Lithuania a year ago. 

The reason Manning and Robbie Brady have missed out is because of the form of Callum O’Dowda, who, much like both of those players, is an attacking player retooled as a left-sided defender. He has played at left-back and left wing-back for Cardiff this season, with Kenny describing him as their Player of the Year thus far, admittedly not among the game’s most sought-after prizes. 

O’Dowda and James McClean are the two players vying for the left wing-back berth against the French, although Doherty can play there too, as he did against Portugal in 2021 when Seamus Coleman played on the right. 

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