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'The fact that it's happening is a miracle' - Kenny says Ireland's Nations League games with Ukraine will be remembered in 50 years

Ireland face Ukraine in Dublin and then in the the Polish city of Lodz next month.

STEPHEN KENNY SAYS Ireland’s upcoming Uefa Nations League fixtures with Ukraine will be remembered as significant fixtures in 50 years. Ireland drew Ukraine along with Scotland and Armenia in their Nations League group last year, with Russia’s subsequent invasion of Ukraine throwing the games into doubt. 

The games are now going ahead: Ukraine’s World Cup play-off semi-final with Scotland was postponed from March to 1 June, and should they win, they will play Wales in the final on 5 June. They then begin their Nations League fixtures in Dublin against Ireland on 8 June, and will face Ireland again on 14 June in the Polish city of Lodz. 

Ukraine’s football league has been suspended, but Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv have been playing fundraising friendly matches across Europe. 

Domestic-based players gathered for an international training camp in Slovenia at the start of this month, while they will soon be joined by those playing abroad, one of whom is Oleksandr Zinchenko, who last weekend wrapped the Premier League trophy in a Ukraine flag during Manchester City’s title celebrations. 

manchester-uk-22nd-may-2022-oleksandr-zinchenko-of-manchester-city-poses-wearing-a-ukrainian-flag-during-the-premier-league-match-at-the-etihad-stadium-manchester-picture-credit-should-read-dar Zinchenko during City's title celebrations. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Kenny today named his squad for the two games with Ukraine along with games away to Armenia and at home to Scotland, and said the fact the fixtures against Ukraine are happening at all is a “miracle.”

“It is a tragedy”, said the Irish manager. “Russia has invaded Ukraine. The game was supposed to be in Kyiv then was moved to Lviv, now it’s moved to Poland. The fact that it’s happening at all is a miracle. The home game [in Dublin], in 50 years’ time, that will be a significant game in Irish football history. Because Russia has invaded thousands have died, thousands more will die.

“President Zelenskyy has made the decision to let [the Ukraine team play]. We have seen the situation where Ukrainian people from Ireland have gone into Ukraine to defend their nation and have died.

“The president had decided to let the Ukraine national team represent the country, and he’s right. People can get fatigued and switch off the war but Ukraine playing highlights [the war.] If anything, from history we have learned that when one country invades another, it doesn’t stop there. And Russia are not just talking about invading Ukraine, they are talking about invading other countries, so this game is a significant game in modern history. For us as a nation, it’s a significant game in our football history.” 

Onto the more mundane matters of football: Kenny has recalled Michael Obafemi to the senior squad for the first time since the striker made his debut under Martin O’Neill in 2018, while Udinese-bound Festy Ebosele and Blackpool winger CJ Hamilton have earned their first senior call-ups. Obafemi has endured a torrid time with injury during his near-four year absence, with his club managers at both Southampton and Swansea at times questioning his attitude. 

“I think Russell Martin as Swansea City manager has been very good for him”, says Kenny of Obafemi’s current club boss. “They have a very good relationship and has managed to get the best out of him at club level. None of us are perfect. Michael is different. As a young player, he’s learning all of the time and I’m hoping he can make a full contribution in this window.”

The Irish squad have had very differing rates of activity in recent weeks: Seamus Coleman and Nathan Collins were involved in the Premier League up to last weekend, while Chiedozie Ogbene, Will Keane, James McClean and Gavin Bazunu haven’t played since the League One season ended on 30 April. All members of the squad have been working on personalised fitness programmes, and those who weren’t involved in the Premier League’s finale and the Championship play-offs will report on Saturday for a 60-minute training game against the Irish U21s. 

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stephen-kenny Stephen Kenny talks to the press. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

There are exceptions: Conor Hourihane volunteered to come in a day early, while Shane Duffy is being brought in to get some match rhythm having not played at all since Ireland’s 2-2 draw with Belgium on 26 March. Coleman, Enda Stevens and James McClean are all carrying injuries, though none are considered doubts for the meeting with Armenia on 4 June. Josh Cullen will miss that game through suspension but will be available for the next three games, while Matt Doherty, Adam Idah, and Andrew Omobamidele are out of the entire quadruple-header with injury. 

Ireland still have their trademark depth at goalkeeper, though, with Bazunu included with Bournemouth’s promotion-winning goalkeeper Mark Travers and Liverpool’s Caoimhín Kelleher, who is reporting for duty on Monday as he will be involved in Saturday’s Champions League final in Paris. 

Bazunu was first-choice for last year’s World Cup qualifiers but Kelleher played the two friendly games in March, with Bazunu ruled out through illness. Kenny left the door open to Kelleher potentially retaining the jersey in June.

“It is a dilemma and one we’ll have to consider. There’s genuine competition there and they’re the sort of headaches we want. 

“These are good dilemmas but not easy selections I must confess. I can’t elaborate on it now because we haven’t come into camp. We’ll consider it at the time.”

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Gavin Cooney

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