Will Smallbone is presented with the Men’s Under-21 International Player of the Year award by Ireland U21 Manager Jim Crawford. Ben Brady/INPHO

'There is more to come. I’m still finding my feet in international football'

Will Smallbone has urged people to be patient with Stephen Kenny’s young team.

WILL SMALLBONE celebrated being named the Ireland U21 Player of the Year on Tuesday following an impressive 12-month period that saw him make a swift transition to the senior team.

The 23-year-old is now firmly part of Stephen Kenny’s plans, starting both the recent Euro qualifiers against Greece and Gibraltar, after several stellar performances with Jim Crawford’s men.

While it was a frustrating end to his time as an U21 player, losing a playoff to qualify for the Euros on penalties versus Israel, Smallbone’s career for club and country alike has gone from strength to strength since.

“It was a good year for me last year with the U21s,” he told reporters at the FAI awards. “We were disappointed with the way it ended, not getting to the Euros, but personally, it was a good year. Hopefully, in the next campaign, they can [qualify].”

Crawford’s side have been in the news recently after their friendly with Kuwait earlier this week was abandoned amid allegations of racism aimed at an Irish substitute.

“It’s disgraceful,” said Smallbone in response to these developments. “I’m very proud of the FAI for how they reacted to it and the lads for stopping the game. You never want to see that happen but unfortunately, sometimes it does and I am very proud of the lads for how they handled themselves.”

The Southampton youngster has experienced somewhat of a baptism of fire in recent days, coming in for his full competitive debut under pressurised circumstances against Greece, with some critics and fans questioning Kenny’s position in light of the 2-1 loss.

Smallbone was substituted after a difficult 53 minutes — though he retained his place for Monday’s 3-0 win over Gibraltar — and the midfielder believes there is room for improvement in his game.

“It’s not easy, it’s international football, it’s obviously elite, it’s a tough jump but you see the kind of group coming through is quite a young group but, as they say, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. But I think it’s a credit to Stephen for having faith in all the lads coming up. That can only benefit us going forward.

“I think there is more to come [from me]. I’m still finding my feet in international football. Obviously, my debut went well with getting the man of the match and the win against Latvia and the Greece game was obviously a different type of game for myself and for everyone really. I think there is definitely a lot more to come from myself.” 

The Basingstoke native, who qualifies to represent the Republic through his Kilkenny-born mother, is also confident Ireland, as a team, will get better.

“Obviously anything can happen. We’ve got to have a belief in ourselves and can go and pick up points there [in Amsterdam] and here against Holland. Irish fans have always been fantastic and they’ll play a massive part in both the games. I’m really looking forward to hopefully playing a part in it.” 

He continues: “The jump from 21s to first team has happened a lot more recently than previous years so we’re all learning as a group at the same time. Patience and sticking with us will be important.

“We all know how the result on Friday wasn’t what we wanted. The players are all honest with each other as a group about what is needed going forward. But it’s only the second game of the campaign, we didn’t let that affect us going to Gibraltar. There is still all to play for in this group and we’ll fight to the very end.”

Before the next international window, Smallbone will need to resolve his club future following a successful loan at Stoke where he made 43 Championship appearances last season.

“I’ll go back in, still waiting for the manager to be announced and then I’ll have a conversation with him and take it from there really. 

“If I stay at Southampton or wherever I end up, I think having played in the Championship will help.” 

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