Sunday 22 September 2019

New kids take first steps into changing climate

Lee O’Connor has signed for Celtic
Lee O’Connor has signed for Celtic
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It's official. Irish football has now entered the 21st century. Martin O'Neill's squad are in session this week and it features two players born in the year 2000.

There is Lee O'Connor, a Waterford native who has been on the books of Manchester United since the summer of 2016 and is only here for training purposes.

James McClean goes through his paces under the supervision of team physiotherapists Ciaran Murray, left, and Colin Dunlevy during yesterday’s training session at Abbotstown. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
James McClean goes through his paces under the supervision of team physiotherapists Ciaran Murray, left, and Colin Dunlevy during yesterday’s training session at Abbotstown. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The Irish U-19 captain is a defender who has been likened to John O'Shea because of his versatility in positions across the back four. He has featured in the UEFA Youth League this term and is well thought of at United.

And then there's Michael Obafemi, the Dublin-born Southampton striker who has Nigerian parents and moved to England as a child.

He has already tasted Premier League action as a sub and is very much here to play. Well, on Thursday for starters.

An outing in the friendly with Northern Ireland will have no implications for his longer-term international future. However, an appearance against Denmark in the UEFA Nations League on Monday would represent a permanent commitment.

Nigeria have made noises about wanting to recruit the teen, although Ireland U-19 boss Tom Mohan had indicated to O'Neill that there was no reason to worry.

The senior manager will talk to the player and his family about the situation and stress that Ireland's need for a front man is such that he is bound to get opportunities. He knows that he cannot force him to go to Aarhus.

It's a modern problem that is becoming all too familiar and O'Neill would like for friendly appearances to be binding.

Inevitably, his own international playing history featured in discussion after training in Abbotstown.

He played in a time where those born inside the territory of Northern Ireland played for Northern Ireland.

O'Neill isn't even clear on whether he was legally allowed to switch sides and the fact he had no idea is informative in itself.

There's much more flexibility now and dealing with that is part of the brief for a manager.

"I don't think there was a choice," said the Derryman before going down a nostalgic trail.

"We could have done with some of your players. With (Liam) Brady... we'd have won the World Cup in 1982."

The possibility of Brady sharing a pitch with George Best was floated too.

These days, the respective associations are dealing with individuals who are lower down the food chain.

Hearts centre-half Jimmy Dunne - a Dundalk man - was named in the provisional squad last week in response to recent interest from Northern Ireland but was cut from the final panel.

O'Neill said that Dunne (21) was aware that was coming and last week's gesture was about letting him know he was in his thoughts - albeit a bit down the pecking order.

After Michael O'Neill had previously suggested implementing a gentleman's agreement between the FAI and IFA with regard to players aged 17-21, the older O'Neill was asked if he would raise the approach to Dunne with his counterpart.

"I'll give him both barrels," he replied, smiling. "I think that he (Dunne) would prefer to play for us, but people at this minute have a choice to make and if that choice is still there after a while it is up to them.

"I have no problem with Michael. I get on really fine with him, I think."

James McClean's name also tends to get mentioned in a diplomatic context and while he is suspended for Denmark, the Derryman will feature on Thursday at some stage.

O'Neill may experiment in that match, referencing Blackburn's Darragh Lenihan as a person he holds in high regard who might get some game-time.

"If determination alone would make a top-class player than Lenihan would be a top-class player," he asserted.

There will also be a goodbye for Glenn Whelan, with the midfielder brought back in to lead the side out as part of what is basically an unofficial farewell.

"Glenn is a bit like myself, he can be a bit narky," said O'Neill, who was in relaxed form at the start of a week where good results are required.

"But we're fine, honestly, really good. I tell you what he didn't do. He never shirked responsibility no matter how the game was going. He still wanted to get the ball and that is a really decent sign of a player.

"I've a bit of time for him as a player. We haven't always seen eye to eye on things, but he's been very good."

The return of Robbie Brady gives O'Neill another midfield option, and he cut Rotherham duo Richie Towell and Ryan Manning from his provisional list.

Premier League defenders Greg Cunningham and Ciaran Clark were also culled, but the latter is absent for personal reasons rather than footballing ones.


The real uncertainty hangs around who he selects up front and this is why Obafemi is a fascinating option.

It is early days yet but his approach and attitude in training impressed the manager who is open to taking a look at any player who might help his striking problems. Obafemi's speed is another attractive asset.

"He is quiet and, obviously, he was not shouting from the rooftops but he really did fine," he said.

"Now these are little five-a-side matches but he has got a bit of pace, has got a wee bit of something and I was quite impressed by him this morning."

O'Neill likes what he sees but the unusual dynamic at play here means that management also have to sell the Irish package to Obafemi too.

That's international football, 21st century style.

Final Ireland Squad - Goalkeepers: Darren Randolph (Middlesbrough), Colin Doyle (Hearts), Caoimhin Kelleher (Liverpool). Defenders: Seamus Coleman (Everton), Cyrus Christie (Fulham), Matt Doherty (Wolves), Richard Keogh (Derby), Shane Duffy (Brighton), Kevin Long (Burnley), John Egan (Sheffield United), Darragh Lenihan (Blackburn), Enda Stevens (Sheffield United), Lee O'Connor* (Manchester United). Midfielders: Robbie Brady (Burnley), Jeff Hendrick (Burnley), Glenn Whelan (Aston Villa), Conor Hourihane (Aston Villa), Harry Arter (Cardiff), David Meyler (Reading), Shaun Williams (Millwall), Alan Browne (Preston), Callum O'Dowda (Bristol City), James McClean (Stoke).
Forwards: Scott Hogan (Aston Villa), Sean Maguire (Preston), Callum Robinson (Preston), Aiden O'Brien (Millwall), Ronan Curtis (Portsmouth), Michael Obafemi (Southampton).
*Player will only train with squad

Irish Independent

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