'Everybody knows what a potential player he is'

Jim Crawford is delighted to have Will Smallbone back available again.

Will Smallbone pictured playing for Ireland U21s (file pic).
Will Smallbone pictured playing for Ireland U21s (file pic).
Image: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

IRELAND U21 boss Jim Crawford is happy to have Southampton’s Will Smallbone back in his squad for the first time since an injury that kept him out of action for almost a year.

The 21-year-old midfielder already has 12 Premier League appearances under his belt, but an ACL injury suffered against Leicester last December left him on the sidelines until recently.

Smallbone made his return to first-team action in the EFL Cup with Southampton last month, unfortunately missing in the shootout against Chelsea as they exited the competition on penalties.

But Crawford was full of praise for the youngster, who was one of two squad members back from injury along with Derby County’s Festy Ebosele.

“It was a nasty injury he picked up,” the Irish boss said. “But one thing is for sure, he showed his character and resilience to work through it and he’s back to a really good level of football fitness. He’s played three games, so he’s up to a nice level of competitive minutes in his legs.

“It will be great to have him on board, I spoke to him during the week. He’s really looking forward to coming in and everybody knows what a potential player he is. Southampton think extremely highly of him and so do we. To bring him in, he’s athletic, he can see a pass, he’s very clever in possession and as I’ve said already, we as a staff are looking forward to him coming in.”

There was also a first call-up for West Ham’s Armstrong Oko-Flex ahead of the crucial qualifiers at Tallaght Stadium versus Italy (12 November) and Sweden (16 November). 

“Armstrong is an exciting talent. I’ve seen him a number of times now playing, with West Ham U23s football. He’s been performing very well, scoring goals. I’ve seen him play wide left but I know he can play either side. He can also play through the middle as well. So he’s somebody that we’ve had an eye on a long time. I think it’s a great opportunity for him to come in, express himself and show people what he can do. I’m definitely looking forward to working with him.”

One player that many will feel could be close to an Irish senior call-up by now is Gavin Kilkenny. 

The Dubliner has made 10 appearances in all competitions this season for a Bournemouth side that are currently top of the Championship.

“I think he’s come on leaps and bounds. It just shows playing first-team football, how quickly you can develop and the level he’s playing at.

“Bournemouth are top of the championship and he’s played a fantastic role in all the games. Albeit, the last game they played against Reading, he came off at half-time. But that was purely tactical and he was on a yellow card too.

“But if you had asked me three years ago, would I see him playing in that particular position, I would have said ‘no’. But he certainly surprised me, but working day in day out with these players, Scott Parker obviously saw something that he can play in that midfield deeper role, pivot is what they call it now and he’s done the job excellently.

“Some of the games he’s played in — West Brom at the start of the season, I thought he was outstanding. A little bit surprised that when he came back from the 21s, he was totally left out of the team and the bench and he was out in the cold for a number of weeks. He came with us in the last window and continued where he left off. He did well. So I’m looking forward again to working with him and I’m delighted he’s with us.”

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Two players that have not made the cut, however, are Brighton’s Andrew Moran and Derby’s Louie Watson. Both have been included in previous squads, and Crawford outlined the reasons for their respective absences.

“With Andrew Moran, I felt it was the best decision to go and play with the 19s. Why? Because for his own development, rather than coming in with the 21s and playing a cameo role in the two games, I just felt going to play three 19s games in a competitive tournament will certainly be more beneficial for them.

“I went to see him at his game last night. I went over to Northampton against Brighton, I was delighted to see him playing, he did really well in the Papa John’s cup. Evan Ferguson played and James Furlong played left-back too, so it was a good game to get to where the three lads did really well.

“For Louie Watson, with Will Smallbone coming in, the midfield is a competitive area of the pitch. You’ve got Gavin Kilkenny playing first-team football, Conor Coventry is in and out, so it’s a difficult area to break in. Louie is a talented player and he just needs games at Derby. I do think Louie is probably caught between a rock and a hard place where he’s involved in the first team a lot on the bench but he’s not playing actual minutes. The fear would be if he gets injured playing with the 23s, the first team won’t happen.”

Former Shelbourne player Crawford also hailed the Tolka Park outfit’s appointment of Damien Duff as “fantastic for our league” and added that any suggestion he was in contention for the job was “purely speculation”.

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Paul Fennessy

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