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Dublin: 5°C Sunday 16 May 2021

Excitement and caution in equal measure as Ireland's next manager embraces green shoots

2020 is set to be a big year in the life of current U21 (and soon-to-be senior) boss Stephen Kenny.

Ireland U21 manager Stephen Kenny with Adam Idah and Jason Molumby.
Ireland U21 manager Stephen Kenny with Adam Idah and Jason Molumby.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

STEPHEN KENNY IS about to watch Jason Knight, Derby County and Wayne Rooney host Barnsley on the box but presses pause to talk about his Irish starlets to The42.

He’s not doing much for his carbon footprint, truth told, not that there is much choice. This is an extraordinarily grim time for Irish football off the pitch but the scatter of teenagers creating waves in the Premier League and Championship of late has Kenny smiling.

“The travelling to matches,” he says, “has been a very nice part of the job. At the start of the season I was watching players play U23 or on loan. The dynamic has changed.”

Kenny will replace Mick McCarthy later this year as senior boss and, inevitably, he has to be conjuring images of this player or that one developing into a seasoned international under his tutelage — perhaps like Adam Idah, who made his Premier League debut for Norwich this week; Lee O’Connor, who waits for his chance at Celtic; or Knight — “very good feet, and dynamic around the field; tenacious for a small player” — who scored twice for Derby against Charlton last week, yet is only 18.

But the Ireland U21 manager has a task at hand: to help that superb outfit qualify for next year’s U21 Championships, something that has never been achieved.

Incredibly, four of the teenage strikers who have played in the Premier League this season are Irish: Aaron Connolly at Brighton, Michael Obafemi at Southampton — both of whom have scored — Troy Parrott, who landed his debut under Jose Mourinho, and Idah, who came on late for Norwich City against Crystal Palace on New Year’s Day.

“They all came different routes too,” Kenny reflects. “Aaron came from Mervue. Adam grew up in Cork all his life. Troy was in the inner-city in Dublin. Michael was born in Dublin but raised in London, a totally different system.

“Also Jonathan Afolabi was raised in Tallaght. He was voted in the top four players in the U19 European Championships this summer and got his move to Celtic but has been injured in recent times, having started for us when we won 3-1 in Sweden.

“Hopefully he’s back for the U21 games in March but Troy and Aaron may not be available obviously; they’ve progressed to the first-team squad, which is great.

stephen-kenny-with-troy-parrott Kenny with Troy Parrott. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Hopefully a couple of those players can make make an impact for the seniors in the playoffs. It was great to see both the two lads and Lee O’Connor get called up to the senior squad. Lee’s the most capped U21 player in our history.”

Idah, who has been sensational for the 21s, could be in line for a bigger role at Deepdale Saturday, when Preston host Norwich in the FA Cup.

“Adam came on in a game that mattered for Norwich, which is significant. He has five U21 goals this season but his best performance was probably against Italy in the 0-0 draw. He had to play against Alessandro Bastoni, who had played for Inter against Juventus the previous weekend. He acquitted himself against a very experienced back four,” Kenny went on.

“Overall he has good attributes. He hadn’t scored in a few internationals and that was bothering him but it was great to see him against Sweden scoring again. He covers a lot of ground, has a great work ethic and leads the line.”

Most of the players Kenny used in that 4-1 win over Sweden were U19.

“We’ve pushed all the young strikers in earlier, Adam 18 and Troy 17. Michael was 18 and Jonathan was 19. They have done very well. Adam has played more, he has been more available more.

They are all different. They’ve had brief experience of league football, they have to back that up.

“It is good progress but there is more progression to make to be an established Premier League striker. The standard and competition is very high. Traditionally teenagers don’t get blooded too frequently.

“Troy has different attributes. He is a natural goalscorer, very good with the ball at his feet, exceptional movement in the box, a great football brain. He is still 17. He has played off the left, number ten; he has shown a versatility.

“Aaron Connolly, because of the players we’ve had at our disposal, playing a 4-2-3-1, has been a striker most of his career but played on the left wing really in Toulon for us this summer and in subsequent games; he did exceptionally well.

aaron-connolly-file-photo Aaron Connolly. Source: David Davies

“Mick McCarthy promoted him and he has been a good addition to the senior squad. He was unlucky not to score against Georgia. He has made very good progress. Injuries have held him back a little recently.

“We’ve not had Michael that much, he’s not been available much due to injury. He got an exceptional goal against Chelsea with his left foot, a great finish for a right-footed player. He’s really suited to playing in a front two. Southampton operate with that system at the moment.

All the players have a lot of improving to do. They know that. They are just starting. I am sure it is exciting just to get a taste of it; it gives them an appetite to progress.

Parrott’s chance of progress at Spurs cannot be harmed by Harry Kane picking up an injury in the Londoners’ defeat to Southampton on New Year’s Day.

“I am not privy to what’s happening at Tottenham,” Kenny went on, “but all I can say is he’s scored a lot of goals for Tottenham at all levels he’s played at, especially the U19 European league. He has a very good attitude. His attitude, application are first-class.”

Irish eyes watching the second tier in England have been smiling too. Jayson Molumby has been excellent of late alongside compatriot Shaun Williams in midfield for Millwall, on loan from Brighton. Knight scored twice for Phillip Cocu’s Derby last week, and Dara O’Shea made his debut in defence for West Bromwich Albion recently.

Kenny added: “Jason Knight is only 18. He was always a central midfield player but has been playing off the left, which he’d not be that familiar with, for Derby. He’s essentially a central midfield player who covers the ground really quickly; great energy and a great mentality.

“Jason Molumby has had a really good loan spell. He lost a year of his career through injury early on and has bounced back. He has played an important part in Millwall’s rise to then playoff positions. He is very consistent. He is captain of the 21s, showing great leadership.

“Dara has a lot of competition at West Brom. They are flying high and have not had many injuries so game time was difficult after he played the majority of games on loan last season at Exeter in League Two. The players have to keep continuing to improve to try to push on.”

Kenny also noted that defender Thomas O’Connor has had his loan spell from Southampton extended by Gillingham. The Kilkenny native has caught the attention of many at Gillingham.

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thomas-oconnor Thomas O'Connor. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“The thing about Thomas is that I saw him last year playing left side of centre-back for Southampton U23s. At Gillingham he played the first half of the season at left-back, where he played for us against Armenia and Sweden. Now, he is playing left side of a midfield diamond, so it shows his versatility. He was a midfielder as a younger player. They play West Ham on Sunday, which will be an interesting game for him.”

The Dubliner was keen to stress that while Irish fans should be excited about the future, there is reason to be sensible too. “I’d urge a degree of caution: we’ve good players coming through but they all have a lot of improvement in them.

He has been heartened by the increased interest in the Irish U21 side, but wants their game against Iceland, who beat Ireland last year, to be switched from 26 March.

“I’ve made a request for that game to be changed as it it clashes with the Ireland senior game against Slovakia. It’s very disappointing. I’ve asked it to be moved to the Friday but it may not happen. I’m told it’s to do with TV commitments.

“We then have Luxembourg away and positive results in those games would guarantee a playoff position with the chance to go to Italy and top the group.”

This being a team led by Stephen Kenny, they will go to Italy and think they are favourites. Perhaps his greatest challenge this year will be to replace the players making their way to the senior Irish side.

Not a bad complaint. 

Having watched Knight belie his years in another victory for Derby, albeit on Sky Plus, Kenny points out that Juventus have just signed Dejan Kulusevski for a fee that could rise to €44m.

“He played in Sweden,” the former Dundalk manager recalls, Kulusevski part of the U21 side who were given a battering by Troy Parrott et al in a 3-1 defeat in September.

imago-20191012 Juventus-bound youngster Dejan Kulusevski. Source: Imago/PA Images

Sweden took the lead then and, the second seeds intent on revenge, did the same in November in Tallaght only to get hammered 4-1. On both occasions Ireland should have scored more.

Kenny is intent that Irish footballers never again think they are limited by being Irish. He is not the only one excited by what 2020 may befall. 

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About the author:

Johnny Ward

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