Given that his previous post was manager of the Under-21 side, Stephen Kenny was expected to bring some youthful zest into the senior Ireland setup. Kenny demonstrated his trust in youth by selecting five players aged 21 or under for the crucial Euro 2020 play-off fixture against Slovakia. The inclusion of goalkeepers Mark Travers and Caoimhín Kelleher, midfielder Jayson Molumby, and forwards Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly gives an insight into Kenny’s long-term plans for the Ireland team, as well as indicating his willingness to rely on youth in the present. It may have been a struggle so far in the Nations League but this is seen as something of a transition period for the team.
The FAI’s decision to appoint Kenny as successor to Mick McCarthy was influenced by the hope that the former Dundalk boss would implement an exciting footballing philosophy driven by dynamic new talents. Kenny has plenty to choose from on that front, with several players in the sub-21 age bracket that will count themselves unlucky to have not made the cut for the Slovakia match. Here’s a look at three of those hot prospects who are at the front of the queue to become the next senior Ireland star in their respective positions.
Defender – West Bromwich Albion
It’s been a few years since Ireland have featured an O’Shea in defence, but the wait could soon be over. Kenny won’t be short of opportunities to watch the defensive capabilities of Dara O’Shea (no relation to John) being put to the test, with West Brom expected to be embroiled in a relegation battle this season. While a swashbuckling 3-3 draw with Chelsea showed cause for optimism, as of October 7th, West Brom are priced at 11/4 to finish bottom in the outright market from Betway. Only Fulham are considered more likely to prop up the table, with everyone at Birmingham Live’s football desk predicting relegation for the Baggies.
O’Shea will be kept busy this year, with early signs indicating that the Irishman will be a fixture in Slaven Bilic’s three-man central defence. The42‘s in-depth analysis of O’Shea’s rise from the seventh tier of English football to it’s top flight shows just how quickly the defender has progressed. His ability to deputise in either full-back position in West Brom’s promotion season made him invaluable to Bilic and should make him similarly appealing to Kenny.
Midfielder – Derby County
Jason Knight has become a key member of the Under-21 side, and the midfielder can’t be too far away from coming into Kenny’s thoughts for his senior squad. Last season was Knight’s breakout year for Derby County, with the player’s overall statistics revealing the attacking potential of this versatile midfielder. In 20 starts and 11 appearances from the bench in the league, Knight notched a laudable six goals.
Goals from midfield are desirable at any level of football, and that’s not something that Ireland have been blessed with in recent years. A look at the stats of the squad heading into the crucial match against Slovakia back this up; Jeff Hendrick (55 apps, 2 goals), James McCarthy (41 apps, 0 goals), and Callum O’Dowda (20 caps, 0 goals) have struggled to find the net when wearing green. Another strong season in the Championship could make this player Kenny’s midfield knight in shining armour. According to reports, Philip Cocu called Knight’s performance ‘extraordinary’ in the Rams’ 1-0 win over Norwich City. If he keeps this up, it will be Knight’s day in the Ireland squad soon enough.
Forward – Southampton
Michael Obafemi was highly coveted on an international level, with Goal framing Obafemi’s 2018 Ireland debut as an end to speculation about the striker representing England or Nigeria. Obafemi became the first player born in the 2000s to represent Ireland, but a ten-minute cameo against Denmark in the Nations League remains his solitary cap. The dynamic and pacey striker hasn’t had many opportunities for Southampton to showcase why Ireland, England, and Nigeria all wanted to claim him as their own.
Last season, Obafemi bagged three goals in 21 Premier League appearances for the Saints. The form of Danny Ings means that one striking spot in Ralph Hassenhuttl’s 4-2-2-2 is taken, but Obafemi will hope to usurp Che Adams as Ings’ partner. He also has compatriot Shane Long as a challenger, with the veteran Irish forward famously regarded as the best thing to come out of Tipperary since the pint bottle of Bulmers. Long has plenty of experience at his disposal, but if Obafemi can stay above him in the pecking order for Southampton then it will be hard for Kenny to ignore his case for selection.
Obafemi has a tougher pathway to regular football for Ireland than O’Shea and Knight; Kenny may be reluctant to pick a five-man strikeforce consisting of three relatively untried players, so Obafemi will have to overtake Idah and Connolly through strong performances for Southampton. O’Shea and Knight have already impressed for their clubs in the season’s early weeks, and if their form continues then it will take them close to a place in Kenny’s next Ireland squad.
Words Jay Kabiru