Mark McGuinness pictured at an Ireland U21 press conference earlier in the week. Tom Maher/INPHO
On the rise

Ending 10 years at Arsenal a 'no-brainer' for promising Irish centre-back

Mark McGuinness on his new lease of life at Cardiff and facing Liverpool in a recent FA Cup tie.

WITH 30 Championship appearances under his belt so far this season, Mark McGuinness is playing at a higher level than some individuals currently in the Irish senior squad.

It’s just unfortunate that he is operating in a position where Stephen Kenny’s men are particularly well-stocked.

Shane Duffy, John Egan, Nathan Collins, Darragh Lenihan and Andrew Omobamidele are among the centre-backs ahead of the 21-year-old in the pecking order.

So while U21s boss Jim Crawford has lost a number of talented youngsters to the senior setup, McGuinness is one player he can keep hold of for now.

The player says he has had conversations with Kenny, who is aware of the good season he is having and told him to be patient.

“That will come, hopefully. But at this point in time, the 21s are where I am focused on in these next games.”

McGuinness has been a regular for Crawford’s side, who have conceded just five goals from six qualifiers so far and face Sweden on Tuesday — a win would see them move to within a point of the group leaders with a game in hand.

And while he has also been doing well in the Welsh capital, the same cannot be said for Cardiff City as a whole. They currently sit 17th in the Championship, and while they are all but safe from relegation, a late promotion push appears unlikely with eight games remaining.

It was Mick McCarthy that brought McGuinness to Cardiff but a woeful run of eight successive losses early on in the season cost the former Ireland manager his job.

“It’s been a season full of ups and downs,” McGuinness says. “We started off okay then had that little dip where we were losing eight games on the spin and that was tough. Then the change of manager and stuff. We have been building over the last four months or so. You can see the progression in the way we are playing and we are starting to look up now.” 

The decision to leave boyhood club Arsenal, he adds, was not one he had to think long and hard about.

“I was there since I was 10 but it was a no-brainer for me. I had had that loan spell at Ipswich and had racked up 25 games or whatever and had that spell in first-team football, and it’s completely different to academy football, miles different. And I didn’t want to go back to that. Arsenal is an amazing club and I was there a long time but it was a no-brainer to leave and go and play at a high level. When Cardiff came along, I took the opportunity.

“My goal was always to go and play as many games as I could and I think I have got those games. Experience-wise, it has been amazing playing in the Championship — it has been a good season for me.”

Hailing from Slough originally, McGuinness qualified to represent Ireland through his Derry-born father and opted to line out for the Boys in Green after being contacted by their English-based scout, Mark O’Toole.

On the prospect of representing Northern Ireland or England, he adds: “There was always interest and other things, but my heart was set on playing here.”

“It’s difficult because when you are a young player at Arsenal, there’s always going to be people asking questions. But I was very clear where I wanted to go and play — that was here.”

McGuinness is not the only English-born Cardiff player in the U21s squad.

Joel Bagan recently made the switch after initially representing Scotland at underage level.

The defender has impressed, whether it’s part of a back three, where he featured in the U21 side’s last match with Sweden, or as a wing-back/full back — the position in which he often is deployed by Cardiff.

The 20-year-old has even demonstrated an eye for goal of late, scoring in three successive Championship games last month, with his impressive form even leading to talk of a potential senior call-up.

“Joel is a great player,” he says. “He’s a young player like myself playing in the Championship and deserves it. He’s a good player and is in a good bit of form now, scoring some goals, which is nice. So hopefully, he can continue that until the end of the season.”

Both Bagan and McGuinness featured alongside senior Ireland international James Collins, as Cardiff recently were beaten 3-1 by Liverpool in the FA Cup.

The Reds put out a strong starting XI that included Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino in what was an invaluable test for the young centre-back.

“You want to be playing against the best players, and they are some of the best in the world. You can just see the quality there, but we played well. We held our own in the first half definitely, but their quality shone through in the second half. But to play against that was a great experience for us.”

And did McGuinness keep a particularly watchful eye on Van Dijk, the player some people regard as the world’s most accomplished centre-back?

“When you’re in the moment, you’re focused on your job and the game, but he’s an amazing defender and one of the best in the world. To look back on the game, you only realise then he’s top class. You can see the level, and why he’s at the level he is.

“When he gets the ball down, he is very composed and reads the game well. He has a quick stride. He might look slow but the way he reads the game, and his body position, his presence on the pitch, you definitely feel that.”

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