Tuesday 17 September 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'Old guard battling to retain status as new generation waits in wings'

The buzz around U-21 squad in stark contrast to muted build-up for vital Switzerland clash

Fernandinho took over in defence (Nick Potts/PA)
Fernandinho took over in defence (Nick Potts/PA)
Rising Irish stars Aaron Connolly (pictured), Michael Obafemi, Adam Idah and Troy Parrott have put pressure on the national team’s old guard. Photo: Alexandre Dimou/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There's a big game on this week, you know. In the shadow of the All-Ireland final fallout, and its new place in the calendar, the September international window is here.

And for Mick McCarthy's Ireland, it brings a fixture of substance.

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The outcome of the visit of top seeds Switzerland to Dublin on Thursday will determine the mood for the rest of the Euro 2020 campaign.

The build-up started in earnest last week with the confirmation of McCarthy's final squad but these are curious times in Irish football. There were talking points in his trimming of the list from 40 to 23, most notably the omission of Shane Long, but that development entered the news cycle and left it just as quickly.

McCarthy sat two seats away from FAI president Donal Conway at Tallaght Stadium on Friday and the latter has generated more column inches over the past month. Some form of dissent or protest at the match is highly likely, despite the FAI's attempts to build bridges with supporters' groups. Noel Mooney's correspondence via email or Twitter has also enlivened the past seven days.

Crisis

Michael Obafemi (a withdrawal from the squad last night). Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Michael Obafemi (a withdrawal from the squad last night). Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The Swiss visit could be described as a welcome break from crisis mode for the FAI, but it's not going to deflect from the bigger picture no matter what happens.

Still, there was a good news football distraction last week and it came in the 24 hours around the announcement of Stephen Kenny's U-21 squad.

Goals for Aaron Connolly and Michael Obafemi and a first start for Adam Idah, three teenage strikers on the books of Premier League clubs, hinted at a bright future. They even managed to shift the focus temporarily from Troy Parrott who is widely expected to be the leader of this generation.

The magnitude of Thursday will hit home as it draws closer. Expect Lansdowne to be hopping in the minutes before kick-off.

Adam Idah. Photo: Sportsfile
Adam Idah. Photo: Sportsfile

But at this remove, there's probably a cohort of Irish football enthusiasts that are equally energised by the prospect of the U-21 side taking on Armenia on Friday night. That's probably a bit harsh on the old guard, but then football fans are always intrigued by the prospect of something new and exciting. In the club sphere, it's why the tried-and-trusted campaigner can be taken for granted while there's a clamour for new signings.

There's a similar vibe around the Irish set-up now, arising from the desperation for a new generation of stars to emerge. After a lull, there is a feeling that a decent crop is on the way through.

Cold hard lessons of history tell us that a significant percentage may fail to hit the desired heights, but the notable aspect of Kenny's panel was the strength in depth - especially in the forward department.

They will have to deal with hype from an early age of course and that actually represents a contrast from the life experience of McCarthy's likely starting team.

Troy Parrott. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Troy Parrott. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

It's plausible that he will go with Darren Randolph, Seamus Coleman, Richard Keogh, Shane Duffy, Enda Stevens, Glenn Whelan, Jeff Hendrick, Conor Hourihane, James McClean, Callum Robinson and David McGoldrick. None of these players featured at Premier League level in their teens.

Darren Randolph debuted for Charlton at Anfield just after he turned 20 but he had to drop down the levels before climbing back up.

Shane Duffy played for Everton in the Europa League as a teenager but his first top-flight outing came at 20 and he also had to take steps back before moving forward.

Hendrick was an early developer at Derby but the rest of the list either came through the League of Ireland or had to rebuild after rejection from big clubs.

Recent Irish dressing-rooms have been stacked with late bloomers, solid professionals that have lasted the course.

But there is a natural excitement about what is coming down the tracks.

Parrott (17) looks certain to gain proper first-team experience at Tottenham in his teens having sampled the good life in pre-season.

Obafemi (19) has already played and scored at Premier League level, but an injury sustained last week with Southampton has ruled him of Kenny's plans this time around.

Connolly (19) was the top player in PL2 last term and his league debut off the bench against Manchester City on Saturday was a natural progression. Idah (18) has a four-year deal at Norwich.

Meanwhile, defender Nathan Collins (18) and midfielder Jason Knight (18) have both broken into Championship first teams.

Collins has already become Stoke's youngest ever captain, but a setback means he misses out this double header.

Knight has received a strong endorsement from new Derby County boss Phillip Cocu.

Goalkeepers Caoimhin Kelleher (20) and Gavin Bazunu (17) have burgeoning profiles at Liverpool and Manchester City and stacks of time on their side.

Mark Travers - who did play in the Premier League as a teenager in May but has since turned 20 - is already knocking on the door from within the senior squad.

There are a number of other members of the U-21 squad that could tick the late-bloomer category, but those mentioned who are already playing first-team football at a good level really aren't that far away from consideration on merit for senior recognition.

Succession

The FAI's succession plan adds another angle to this, of course, with Kenny waiting to see where Ireland's 2020 journey ends before assuming control from McCarthy.

It remains a talking point of sorts, with some mischievous attempts - largely but not exclusively media-driven - to cast doubt on the handover.

The conception of the plan was deeply unusual, but any calls to rip it up would be deeply ironic. Irish international football's recent history is littered with emotional decisions to stick with the status quo because it seems to make the most sense in the short term.

If the so-called 'new FAI' is tempted to change tack because of a couple of good results, they really would be behaving like a tribute act of the old regime.

The plan is the plan and, as McCarthy did note recently, Kenny might just be arriving at the right time.

He can influence the development of the players coming through, but he can't control the pace of their growing club status.

And that's why several of this week's U-21 squad might just get into the senior dressing-room before him.

McCarthy's charges will take to the field on Thursday to further their dreams of participation in a major tournament in Dublin next summer.

A couple of Friday's protagonists should realistically harbour the same ambitions.

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