Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
Michael Obafemi (left), Callum Robinson (centre) and Chiedozie Ogbene.
# Challenges
Boom and bust cycle a harsh reality as Ireland search for consistency
While goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu is under the spotlight in the Premier League, Stephen Kenny will be hoping attacking trio can shine this month.

THE WEEK BEFORE Gavin Bazunu left Dublin to join Manchester City, he and his mother Cara went to a Christy Moore gig in Vicar Street as a farewell.

She grew up playing Irish ballads, but that stopped as she got older.

Then Cara started hearing Gavin sing the likes of The Fureys, Wolfe Tones and Dubliners around the family home in Firhouse.

Music became a shared bond thanks to the bus journeys he was taking as he progressed through his teens with Shamrock Rovers’ academy.

Coaches like Pat Flynn and Stephen Rice encouraged music as a means of bonding.

The latter, incidentally, is now a key cog in Stephen Kenny’s Ireland staff and will have even more of a hands-on approach with coaching building up to the Nations League games with Scotland and Armenia.

Music is also used in other ways by Bazunu.

britain-soccer-premier-league Rui Vieira Gavin Bazunu in action for Southampton on Friday night. Rui Vieira

Before games, he can often be seen with earphones in as he walks around the pitch. The music he has playing will be chosen to help lower his heart rate and prepare for the 90 minutes to come.

This season, his first as a Premier League regular following his move from City to Southampton, the need to maintain his equilibrium is even greater.

On Friday night, Sky Sports’ double act of Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville pointed the finger of blame at him after he palmed Ollie Watkins’ header onto the bar, which allowed Jacob Ramsey pounce for the only goal of the game.

Both felt Bazunu should have punched the initial effort clear.

Considering he has been lauded for his temperament and mentality since becoming Ireland’s No.1 goalkeeper, it is not something you expect will linger as attention turns to international matters.

It’s three months since Ireland’s last batch of international games – the four-game glut which saw Stephen Kenny earn four points courtesy of a resounding 3-0 win over Scotland and credible 1-1 draw with Ukraine in Poland.

Having been comfortably put to the sword by Ukraine in Dublin and suffering a 1-0 defeat away to Armenia, it was a strong finish to the summer which provided some much-needed positivity.

Bazunu, of course, played no part because of injury.

Caoimhín Kelleher proved an able deputy but a groin strain of his own has ruled the Liverpool man out of these games and now Bazunu has his place in the pecking order restored.

Such is the nature of international football.

Fortunes for key personnel can vary wildly from camp to camp, providing a unique challenge for management to maintain any form of consistency or momentum.

Callum Robinson, for example, scored six times (including one hat-trick against Qatar) in four games over October and November last year but has since had to leave West Brom for Cardiff City in a bid to play regular football.

stephen-kenny-applauds-the-fans James Crombie / INPHO Ireland manager Stephen Kenny. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

“That’s the thing with international football, you think it was last week. It’s only seven matches ago for me but it’s last November,” Kenny said of the time difference.

So, while Bazunu may arrive this weekend on a bit of a downer because of his most recent club outing, the fact he played no part in June should provide added impetus to reassert his position as No.1.

The same goes at the other end of the pitch, where Michael Obafemi and Chiedozie Ogbene had contrasting fortunes in a green jersey three months ago and have since enjoyed – and in the Swansea City man’s case, endured – similar differences at their respective clubs at the start of this Championship season.

And the fallout from Obafemi’s woes in Wales have already become a feature of Kenny’s build-up this week, after the Ireland boss said there were sometimes two or three sides to every story in relation to the striker being dropped from the last two matchday squads (prior to this weekend) for apparently not being in the right head space following Burnley’s three transfer deadline day attempts to sign him.

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Swansea manager Russell Martin said he was “disappointed” with Kenny’s remarks, and it’s just another example of how quickly a feelgood factor can dissipate.

michael-obafemi-scores-his-sides-third-goal-past-goalkeeper-craig-gordon Ryan Byrne / INPHO Michael Obafemi's shot hits the net against Scotland in June. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Obafemi was the breakout star for Ireland in June, producing one outrageous assist for Troy Parrott against Scotland before delivering a pile driver finish from long range in the same fixture.

And while a tweaked hamstring later forced him off, the hope was that his influence would only grow. One goal this season means he arrives searching to rediscover that spark.

Ogbene, on the other hand, took a back seat before the summer break and started his club campaign with Rotherham as if he had a point to prove after promotion from League One.

Four goals in his first five games – including one in the EFL Cup – illustrated that point, and despite a four-game drought, he found the net in midweek.

Robinson, Obafemi, and Ogbene, not to mention Preston’s Troy Parrott, are operating in the second tier.

Bazunu and Nathan Collins are the only two Premier League regulars, with the experienced defensive trio of Matt Doherty, Seamus Coleman and Shane Duffy all on the fringes for Tottenham, Everton and Fulham, respectively.

chiedozie-ogbene-michael-obafemi-and-cj-hamilton-celebrate-after-the-game James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Considering Collins’ emergence, Andrew Omobamdiele’s return, and eye-catching Norwich displays, plus Dara O’Shea’s consistency with West Brom, it’s not difficult to imagine those three quickly becoming pillars of the defence.

But yet international football doesn’t quite work like that.

Good fortune and tales of woe are never far away, and rarely separated.


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