Wednesday 18 September 2019

'The idea that we can't break through to the Premier League is not true' - U21 ace Gavin Kilkenny

Kenny’s confident kids offer hope towards a bright future

Gavin Kilkenny of Republic of Ireland and Edgar Grigoryan of Armenia. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Gavin Kilkenny of Republic of Ireland and Edgar Grigoryan of Armenia. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Aidan Fitzmaurice

The website of Sweden's national broadcaster will see an unusually high level of traffic from Ireland tomorrow, football fans here eager to see, on a streaming service, the latest chapter in the story that is Kenny's Kids.

Mick McCarthy's senior team of course have a friendly this week, at home tomorrow to a Bulgarian side smarting from a heavy defeat in London. But the focus on Ireland's U-21 qualifier away to Sweden is intense, as there is a groundswell of opinion that the current crop could be the best-ever U-21 side fielded by Ireland.

McCarthy will use the Bulgaria game to try a few things out and that should see senior debuts for Mark Travers, James Collins, Josh Cullen and, at some point, Jack Byrne.

Loyal servants like John Egan, Alan Browne and Alan Judge will get more game-time as will Callum O'Dowda, who has yet to play under McCarthy.

Troy Parrott celebrates with supporters after Ireland’s victory in their U21 European Championship qualifier against Armenia. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Troy Parrott celebrates with supporters after Ireland’s victory in their U21 European Championship qualifier against Armenia. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Some have asked if the wrong players are in Dublin, though, and a chunk of the attendance at Tallaght Stadium on Friday night, where Kenny's side beat Armenia 1-0 in a Euro qualifier, would have hoped to see teenagers Troy Parrott and Aaron Connolly promoted to the senior squad this week.

Parrott (17) was the scorer and Connolly (19) the creator of the goal which beat the Armenians. Kenny even joked after the game that he was "going to turn my phone off" lest McCarthy try and nab Parrott.

In the end, the U-21s flew to Sweden with their squad intact and McCarthy goes into the Bulgaria game with just two recognised strikers, one of them (James Collins) an uncapped played heading for his 30th birthday having been promoted from League One last seasons. The teenagers will have to wait.

McCarthy has shown before that he will select players for the senior squad when he is ready, not when the media (from his first spell as boss) or keyboard warriors (the excited voices of today) demand it.

A teenage Robbie Keane had played 16 games (and scored four goals) for Wolves before Ireland played Belgium in the 1998 World Cup play-off, but McCarthy felt then that Keane was not yet ready for senior duty, a position he would always defend.

So McCarthy will argue strongly that for Parrott to get a place in his senior squad, he needs games, games in men's football, not just pre-season friendlies and U-23 Premier League matches, or that Connolly needs more than one outing off the bench for Brighton in a heavy loss to Manchester City.

But there are signs from this crop currently playing under Kenny that they can give hope to an Irish football scene which has been battered, on and off the field, for a year and more.

Some of the football played by Kenny's U-21s on Friday was thrilling, though failure to convert chances into more than one goal is a slight concern, and players like Connolly (Brighton) and Gavin Kilkenny (Bournemouth), still in their teens, looked very impressive. Parrott had a relatively quiet night though he did score the only goal of the game.

Ireland U-21 boss Stephen Kenny. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland U-21 boss Stephen Kenny. Photo: Sportsfile

The hope is that some of this group can emerge en bloc, as the likes of Keane, Duff and Dunne did 20 years ago.

It's been a bleak few years for Ireland in the English top flight, with Irish players there getting rarer and older.

So the sight of teen Connolly playing for Brighton two weeks ago is positive, along with League Cup outings for Adam Idah (Norwich).

Meanwhile, Lee O'Connor will be closer to the first team at Celtic than he was at Manchester United.

Midfielder Kilkenny, a product of the St Kevin's Boys school, also looked the part in green and he was given his first-team debut by Bournemouth last month.

"Sometimes Irish players are written off too early when it comes to the Premier League," says Kilkenny, from Beaumont.

"We have players who have the potential to break into the team in the coming years, maybe not right now but in time.

"The idea that we can't break through in the Premier League is not true, we need to believe in ourselves."

Irish Independent

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