Is the biggest game of the Irish football weekend in Tallaght tonight?
It’s the starting point for a debate, that’s for sure. While most of the attention will be on Glasgow tomorrow, and the all-consuming business of the senior side, the actual importance of UEFA Nations League games is largely dictated by future events.
They matter, yet the extent to which they do is shaped by performances in regular qualifying next year.
For Jim Crawford’s U-21 side, however, there is a much more straightforward equation at hand.
They’ve got a two-legged tie with Israel where the prize from a green perspective is becoming the first Irish side in this age group to reach a major tournament.
When you consider that Kenny’s squad for Glasgow includes five players who would add a lot to Crawford’s dressing room – and that’s before you mention the injured Norwich pair Adam Idah and Andrew Omobamidele – this group of young players have acquitted themselves extremely well.
Crawford has confirmed that Kenny has spoken to him about certain members of his squad and the anticipation is that a handful will be in consideration for the November friendlies with Norway and Malta.
Will Smallbone (on loan at Stoke from Southampton), Conor Coventry (West Ham) and Evan Ferguson (Brighton) are obvious contenders although Crawford was tight lipped.
“Stephen has asked about certain players – he has asked to keep it private,” said Crawford when names were put to him.
“There are players who are definitely on his radar and that might be a case in November, where we’ve no games and it might be an opportunity to experiment.
“But with the group that got us this far I was confident we would keep the names you said there, be it Will Smallbone, Conor Coventry, Evan Ferguson.
“I don’t know how Stephen operates but if Evan Ferguson is playing first-team football with Brighton and he is scoring goals I’d say there is every chance he will get a senior call-up,” continued Crawford, who was looking beyond November with that answer.
“The same goes for Will Smallbone, who is doing very, very well at Stoke City at the minute.”
What’s relevant about the names mentioned is that they correspond with problem areas in the senior set-up. With Idah enduring bad luck, there is scope for a physically imposing athletic front man and Ferguson ticks those boxes.
Meanwhile, there is a shortage of depth in the centre of midfield which is why the development of Smallbone and Coventry (and the injured Gavin Kilkenny) is important.
It was fitting enough that on the eve of the big U-21 game, Josh Cullen was rolled out for senior press duty because he’s the ideal role model for the next generation.
He has also enjoyed a rapid ascension in the pecking order, overtaking the likes of Jeff Hendrick, Conor Hourihane, and the forgotten man James McCarthy, to become the first name on the teamsheet in that position.
Cullen was once an unheralded member of the U-21 team. He made his debut for Noel King’s side in 2015 and soldiered away at that level, gaining international experience without fanfare at a time where results were generally quite poor.
He was then overshadowed by the emergence of a certain Declan Rice – a friend at West Ham – with Cullen the low-key figure in the background during the period where the future England star was kissing Irish badges and insisting he was going nowhere.
Cullen’s qualities were obvious, and he always seemed suited to the international sphere, yet he still needed to advance his own playing career at club level before really catching Kenny’s eye at Anderlecht. Now, he’s made himself indispensable and has followed Vincent Kompany to Burnley – a move that could eventually bring him to the Premier League as a first-choice performer.
The obvious comparison to draw is the trajectory of Coventry, another tidy midfielder from the West Ham production line who uses the ball well even though his best work often slips under the radar.
“I played with him in the U-23s,” said Cullen. “I trained with him numerous times, and he’s a really good player and someone I’m sure who has a bright future for club and country.”
After going on the loan circuit with Peterborough and then MK Dons, Coventry has been on the fringes of the West Ham first team and has now picked up more U-21 caps than any other player.
Records at that level aren’t always a compliment as outstanding performers are fast-tracked but the patient progress of Cullen makes the opposite case.
Coventry is an obvious rival to Cullen and Molumby in the more withdrawn midfield berths. Smallbone is an interesting option for he can offer something different.
Crawford spoke in glowing terms about his Stoke displays, yet some local observers feel he can step-up on his performances to date.
The 22-year-old offers versatility which is attractive in the context of the senior side’s midfield set-up. He has operated in deeper position with Southampton, yet can also function as a No 10 or in one of the two roles behind a striker in a 3-4-2-1. Ireland have used the energy and invention of Jason Knight as a bridge between midfield and attack, and Smallbone appeals as a creative Plan B in that department.
Kenny’s side have struggled to break down weaker teams on occasion and Smallbone’s playmaking skills might just be suited to that type of test.
It is a big jump though, and players who shine in the underage sphere can end up in completely different positions in the senior game.
Troy Parrott is an emerging case in point, while the return of Aaron Connolly to the U-21 dressing room provides a reminder of how he shone for Kenny at that level as a flying left winger.
His preference was always to operate as a central striker, but his development has stagnated with Kenny pointing out how Connolly’s ability to dribble has slipped out of his skillset.
This is why long-term predictions are dangerous. At this point in time, Smallbone, Coventry and Ferguson might be the obvious players to pick out from Crawford’s selection.
But Wolves’ Joe Hodge has his supporters too, while Dawson Devoy has surpassed early expectations at MK Dons. Cullen’s Burnley team-mate Dara Costelloe was selected by Kompany for the first game of this season despite never having played for his country at any level. The Limerickman is now in the shake-up.
In football, movement isn’t all about straight lines.