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The Arsenal starlet aiming to make an impact with Ireland's youngsters

Promising defender Mark McGuinness is expected to feature against Wales tomorrow.

Mark McGuinness (file pic).
Mark McGuinness (file pic).
Image: PressinPhoto/INPHO

IT’S AN EXCITING time for Mark McGuinness.

The 20-year-old centre-back is expected to be a key player for Ireland U21s during their forthcoming qualifying campaign.

He earned his first cap for Jim Crawford’s side at the end of the previous round of qualifiers, deputising for the suspended Nathan Collins, as they beat Luxembourg 2-1 in Beggen.

Tomorrow, in a friendly away to Wales, McGuinness is expected to add to his caps tally.

In the last campaign, Dara O’Shea and Conor Masterson were generally the preferred centre-half pairing, but with O’Shea graduating to senior level and Masterson no longer eligible for the 21s, it looks all set for McGuinness to stake a claim for a regular spot in the team.

And while the last group of U21s ultimately fell just short in their bid to become the first Irish team to reach a major tournament in that age group, McGuinness believes they set a benchmark for future sides to follow.

“The 21s last year did fantastically, they went on a great run,” he says. “They were a great bunch of lads, great players and there was a lot of talent in that group.

“For us, we just have to match that and try our best to carry on the legacy of the 21s, and hopefully we can do that in this campaign.”

Born in Slough, McGuinness qualifies to represent Ireland through his Derry-born father, and the pair share a talent for sport.

“My dad plays at a high level in bowls,” he explains. “My family has always been sporting. My mum plays tennis. My two brothers play football.”

On the decision to represent the Republic, McGuinness adds: “International football is a massive bonus for anyone’s career and great experience. I always wanted to play and the opportunity to play for Ireland was such a proud moment for me. It came along at U15s or 16s. And ever since I came into that environment, the Irish culture, I wanted to stay.”

McGuinness has been at Arsenal since the age of 10 and signed his first professional contract in April 2019, describing it as “a proud moment for me and my family”.

With first-team football not on the horizon, at least in the short term as far as his Gunners career is concerned, the youngster defender opted to go on loan to Ipswich early in the season, joining an already sizeable Irish contingent, which also includes Troy Parrott, Alan Judge, Stephen Ward and Aaron Drinan

The stint began well. McGuinness got his first taste of senior football last October, completing 90 minutes in a 1-0 win over Gillingham.

He has gone on to make 19 appearances in total for the Tractor Boys, though his last came during a 0-0 draw with Northampton on 16 February.

Since former Sligo Rovers boss Paul Cook replaced Paul Lambert as manager, the youngster has not played a minute of first-team action, with the club two points off the League One play-off places in 10th.

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“It’s been fantastic for me to play first-team football — that’s what I’ve needed,” he says. “As a young centre-half, you need that experience and that exposure in men’s football to then progress.

“Leading on to the international stuff, it just gives me extra confidence and exposure for the international period.”

On his consignment to the bench of late, McGuinness adds: “Men’s football can go up and down, managers change and things like that, so it’s just a case of that really.”

While this latest predicament is an obvious setback, McGuinness can still be happy enough overall with a season that has seen him rack up many first-team appearances.

And with Mikel Arteta having shown a willingness to blood young players during his tenure, the Irish centre-back is hopeful he can make a first-team breakthrough at Arsenal eventually.

“That’s the ultimate goal for me. I’ve always wanted to play for Arsenal as a young kid. It’s still my aim, to play at the highest level. So hopefully it can happen in the next few years.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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