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'If everyone was the same, life would be dull' - Kenny has no issues with Obafemi as he returns to Irish squad

Kenny today named a 27-man squad for four Nations League fixtures next month.

Kenny and Obafemi during the an U21 training session in 2019.
Kenny and Obafemi during the an U21 training session in 2019.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

STEPHEN KENNY SAYS he has no problems with Michael Obafemi as the Swansea striker returned to the Irish squad for the first time since being capped in the final game of Martin O’Neill’s reign in 2018. 

Obafemi was today included in the 27-man squad for Ireland’s four Nations League fixtures against Armenia, Scotland and Ukraine (twice) next month. 

Obafemi and Kenny worked together at U21 level and the striker took exception to being omitted from Kenny’s very first senior squad in 2020, tweeting ‘disgrace’ before promptly deleting it and tweeting again with a more veiled, ‘interesting’ accompanied with a couple of puzzled emojis. That too was later deleted. 

The striker was not in contention for the squad up until this year, as he struggled with hamstring problems and remained on the fringes of the Southampton first team. Obafemi moved to  Swansea City on a permanent transfer last August, and having initially been upbraided by manager Russell Martin over his attitude, he has found rich form since the turn of the year ending the Championship season with 11 goals in his final 19 games.

Having initially opted out of Kenny’s squad in March citing the potential workload on his hamstrings, he has been included in Kenny’s 27-man squad for the Nations League quadruple-header next month. 

“Michael’s grand”, said Kenny when asked about the pair’s relationship. “I’ve had a few meetings with Michael. Listen, if everyone was the same, like would be dull. Michael is a charismatic guy and I know he’s very proud to play for Ireland and he’s excited about coming in.

“He’s speaking about family coming to Ireland for the games and so forth, so he’s looking forward to it.

“It’s the first time in his career, Michael, that he’s had a run of consecutive games. It’s very hard for young players in the Premier League to get that, just the standard is so high and the squads are so big, so the move to Swansea, which is a great club and a great platform to really do well in the Championship, you can see really the improvement in his play.

“I’ve seen aspects of his play that I haven’t seen previously with Swansea: his hold-up play has really come on well and he’s shown great football intelligence allied to the natural speed that his got.

“The performances I’ve seen recently with Swansea are better than I’ve ever seen from him, so his rate of improvement has been very high.” 

There are two debutants in the squad: Blackpool winger CJ Hamilton and Derby’s Festy Ebosele, who is moving to Udinese next season. Kenny says he doesn’t see Ebosele as playing at right wing-back – he often played at full-back for his club this season – but as a right-winger, though his versatility may be necessary across the four games with Matt Doherty absent with injury and Seamus Coleman nursing a groin twinge which is not expected to rule him out of the meeting with Armenia on 4 June. 

Ebosele has played at underage international level for Ireland but Hamilton is altogether less well-known. 

“He was someone that I had little information on, to be honest”, said Kenny of Hamilton. “He lived his first 14 years at Waterford and played in the Kennedy Cup for Waterford, then he went to England. He came the road less travelled, coming through the Conference in England for a couple of years and up through League Two and League One and into the Championship. A very interesting journey.

“Obviously he’s a very, very quick left winger with a lot of pace. He plays on the right as well, he can play on either wing for Blackpool, and he has a very good attitude and he’s made a good contribution.” 

Aaron Connolly is again absent from the squad: Kenny says he wasn’t fit for selection with an ongoing heel problem, in which he took painkilling injections so as to be able to play for Middlesbrough on loan this season. Connolly scored just twice in 20 games for ‘Boro and has returned to Brighton, and Kenny today had words of encouragement for the forward. 

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

“When you talk to people in England when you’re going around the club, a lot of coaches, they say to disregard a player’s first loan. That’s a saying they have. They say most first loans are not always successful. He played a lot of games for Middlesbrough and that was a good experience for him, and I’m sure if he has another loan move he will be better for it. ” Kenny says he is not privvy to any loan arrangement for next season, though suspects one will happen. 

One challenge for Ireland in a four-game window that Kenny says he is treating “like a tournament” has been the varying schedules of his players. Whereas Coleman and Nathan Collins were involved in the final weekend of the Premier League last Sunday, four of the squad – Chiedozie Ogbene, Will Keane, Gavin Bazunu, and James McClean – haven’t played on 30 April. Each player has been given a personalised fitness plan by the squad’s Head of Athletic Performance, Damien Doyle, with GPS trackers monitored by the staff at Abbottstown. 

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“It’s a challenge if you don’t play for four weeks – which becomes six weeks by the time the match is – and how to get up to speed. So we have to look at everyone on an individual basis to maximise their physical capacity.” 

Elsewhere, Kenny said he was unworried at the prospect of replacing his number three for a third time since taking charge. John Eustace replaced Anthony Barry in March, and reportedly held talks with Watford over their vacant manager’s job prior to their appointing Rob Edwards. 

“It wasn’t really a concern, it didn’t materialise.” 

Republic of Ireland Squad 

Goalkeepers: Caoimhin Kelleher (Liverpool), Gavin Bazunu (Manchester City), Mark Travers (AFC Bournemouth).

Defenders: Seamus Coleman (Everton), Cyrus Christie (Fulham), Enda Stevens (Sheffield United), Ryan Manning (Swansea City), James McClean (Wigan Athletic), Shane Duffy (Brighton and Hove Albion), John Egan (Sheffield United), Nathan Collins (Burnley), Dara O’Shea (West Bromwich Albion), Darragh Lenihan (Blackburn Rovers).

Midfielders: Conor Hourihane (Aston Villa), Josh Cullen (Anderlecht), Jeff Hendrick (Newcastle United), Jayson Molumby (West Bromwich Albion), Alan Browne (Preston North End), Jason Knight (Derby County).

Forwards: Callum Robinson (West Bromwich Albion), Troy Parrott (Tottenham Hotspur), Scott Hogan (Birmingham City), Will Keane (Wigan Athletic), Michael Obafemi (Swansea City), Chiedozie Ogbene (Rotherham United), CJ Hamilton (Blackpool), Festy Ebosele (Derby County) 

Fixtures – Uefa Nations League

  • 04/06 – Armenia v Ireland, Republican Stadium, Yerevan. 2pm (5pm local time)
  • 08/06 – Republic of Ireland v Ukraine, Aviva Stadium – 7.45pm
  • 11/06 – Republic of Ireland v Scotland, Aviva Stadium – 5pm
  • 14/06 – Ukraine v Republic of Ireland, ŁKS Stadium, Łódź – 7.45pm (8.45pm local time)

About the author:

Gavin Cooney  / reports from FAI HQ, Abbottstown

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