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Dublin: 6°C Friday 23 April 2021

'He has a really exquisite range of passing for a left-back. He has a terrific left foot'

Stephen Kenny has handed Thomas O’Connor a first call-up for Ireland U21s.

Thomas O'Connor is currently playing for Gillingham, on loan from Southampton.
Thomas O'Connor is currently playing for Gillingham, on loan from Southampton.
Image: EMPICS Sport

Updated at 11.46

STEPHEN KENNY WILL be relying on some of the more peripheral figures in his squad for upcoming qualifiers against Armenia and Sweden.

For the Armenia clash, Ireland will be without six of the players who featured in the impressive 3-1 away win over Sweden back in September.

Troy Parrott and Aaron Connolly are on senior duty, Lee O’Connor and Jayson Molumby are suspended (though will come back into contention for the Sweden home game), and Darragh Leahy and Jonathan Afolabi are injured.

Given these absences, three players have received first-time call-ups.

Aston Villa’s Jack Clarke, Hearts striker Aidan Keena and Southampton full-back Thomas O’Connor, who is on loan at Gillingham, have all made the cut.

“I saw [Thomas] a number of times last year playing with Southampton U23s,” Kenny said. “But he was a central midfielder growing up. He played on the left side of a back three for Southampton U23s last year, before going on loan to Gillingham in League One and playing left-back for 12 games.

“So the difficulty has been for him finding his position. I think [left-back] suits him. Ultimately, he was a midfielder most of his life. I’ve been to Gillingham twice the last few weeks and I was there last Saturday. They got beaten 3-0 by Rotherham and he was playing against Trevor Clarke. 

Both games I’ve gone to see them they’ve lost 3-0 in fact against Oxford and Rotherham, but he has a really exquisite range of passing for a left-back. So he has a terrific left foot. He’s a very good passer of the ball and the fact that he’s played centre-half against Southampton. He’s still learning about that position, so we’ll see how that goes.”

On Keena and Clarke, Kenny adds: “Aidan is obviously from Mullingar. He’s gone from St Pat’s U19s to Hearts. I watched him last year. He played in the Scottish Cup semi-final for Hearts. He got injured, but was out for a good period of time. So recently he’s been featuring off the bench a little bit for Hearts and in some games. So that’s where he has been, so he’s someone that we’ve added to the squad.

“Jack Clarke has been capped at U18 level under Jim Crawford and a couple of internationals as well. He’s been out of the picture for a long time for Ireland, but he’s had a very good season for Aston Villa U23s. With the absence of one or two players, we’ve decided to call Jack in. He’s a left-footed player. We don’t have a left-footed central midfield player so he carries the ball really well. He’s got good vision, a good weight of pass and we’re pleased to have him in the squad.”

Captain Jayson Molumby has been a star of the campaign thus far, and will be a particularly big loss for the Armenia trip, though Kenny feels Derby youngster Jason Knight can step up in his place.

“Jayson’s been terrific. He’s really played well. He’s been really exceptional. A very dynamic player. He’s captained the team brilliantly, it must be said, over the 10 games, we’re delighted.

Some of the players, the likes of Jason Knight, who is still only 18, but he came on in the recent game against Italy. He went to Toulon with us and played in Toulon. But Jason Knight coming into the squad is a terrific boost for us as well. I think we’ve got good players in that department. Very young, with Conor Coventry and Jason Knight, 18 and 19. But certainly not lacking in quality or work ethic. Jason Knight has a terrific attitude to the game. He’s already made his debut at Derby County and he can be an important player for us for sure.”

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After an encouraging draw at home to Italy, Kenny’s side suffered a disappointing loss away to Iceland — their first defeat of the campaign. It was a match the manager believes his side “easily could have won,” while he was also critical of the referee’s performance.

“Lee O’Connor’s suspended for this [Armenia] game, the ball hit his back, it didn’t even hit his arm. There was subsequently a red card and a penalty given against him. So that decision was clearly wrong on the side. When you view it on the video, it confirmed everything.

“That was a game we didn’t deserve to lose, so that was a setback for us. There’s a lot of new players coming into the squad going to Armenia. So it’s a big challenge for us now, going to Armenia to try to get a positive result. We’re still in a very strong position in the group, so a big win in Armenia would be very welcome.”

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Paul Fennessy

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