Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
'The stuff that’s happened to me over the last few years I wouldn’t wish upon anyone'
Will Smallbone has overcome a lot of challenges off the pitch to become an important member of the Irish squad.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND midfielder Will Smallbone says his litany of off-field challenges has instilled him with resilience that will benefit the rest of his career. 

Smallbone is only 23, but in January 2021 suffered a serious knee injury while playing for Southampton against Leicester. Smallbone ruptured his ACL and actually managed to play on for a while before being withdrawn when the pain became too much. 

It was during his lengthy rehabilitation that Smallbone’s hair began to fall out, and he was subsequently told he suffered from alopecia. Smallbone has since become an ambassador for Alopecia UK to help others with the condition. 

“I’d say the hardest thing about having alopecia has been the impact on my confidence”, Smallbone said in an interview with the charity last year. 

“At first I wouldn’t ever leave the house without a hat because I felt embarrassed about what had happened and how I looked, which I would say I have now overcome.”

Smallbone is currently with the Irish squad in Antalya, Turkey, where they are gathered for a 10-day training camp ahead of next week’s Euro 2024 qualifier with Greece. Reflecting on his off-pitch challenges to this point, Smallbone said they have made him stronger. 

“The stuff that’s happened to me over the last few years I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. I’ve shown resilience and a lot of character to know that I can take on anything that is thrown at me.”

Smallbone’s career is now flourishing. He stepped up from the U21s to the Irish senior squad last November and then made his debut against Latvia in March, picking up the man of the match award and setting up one of Ireland’s goals in a 3-2 win. 

He has also finished a full season of regular, first-team football, playing 43 games for Stoke City in the Championship. He is due to return to parent club Southampton for next season, who look set to appoint Russell Martin from Swansea as their new manager. Speaking in Turkey, Smallbone was coy on his future at Southampton, merely emphasising he wants to play regularly. 

“I’m not thinking too much about my future while I’m out here with Ireland. I’ll wait for Southampton to appoint a manager, and like everyone else have a conversation with him to see where he sees me. I’m happy to concentrate on Ireland and worry about that when back but next season is very important for me to carry on playing football.” 

In making his debut against Latvia, Smallbone gave Ireland a creative dimension in midfield they have often lacked, and though he was not used in the Euro 2024 qualifier against France, he is in contention to play an important role against Greece and against Gibraltar on Monday week. 

“It has always been a dream of mine to get through to the senior international stage and to have that match in March was fantastic for me”, said Smallbone. “I feel ready now to push on and hopefully play a big part in the campaign.” 

The confidence evident in his performance against Latvia is also there in his recollections of it. 

“I am obviously confident in my own ability but it was very nice to have my debut go alongside a man of the match. Maybe at the time it wasn’t something I thought about too much but looking back on it, it will always be something that I’m very proud of.” 

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