The rehabilitation of Irish football is over, the FAI rebrand completed and Castore will unveil a new shirt on Monday, seven days before Kylian Mbappé takes to the pitch in Dublin.
The time is now for Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny. Having guided a callow group through the pandemic, a failed World Cup qualification campaign and three coaches, Kenny must ensure that the 25/26-man squad he names at lunchtime on Thursday to play France on March 27th delivers.
Before Didier Deschamps’ ridiculously gifted squad arrives, the Aviva Stadium hosts Latvia next Wednesday, in what many expect to be Evan Ferguson’s first start for his country. Presumably, the 18-year-old needs to play so that Kenny can figure out how to shape this Euro 2024 qualification campaign around the Brighton striker.
France prepare for Ireland with their Group B opener against the Netherlands in Paris on March 24th. That’s third versus sixth in the world rankings, with Fifa mathematics placing Brazil top of the pile. Ireland remain 48th, three places ahead of Greece.
The Hellenic football federation have settled on the Agia Sophia stadium, home to AEK Athens, for the June 16th qualifier, mercifully an 8:45pm kick-off, but the French remain unsure of the venue for Ireland’s visit on September 7th, with the Rugby World Cup ruling out Stade de France.
The French Football Federation also seek a replacement for Noël Le Graët, their 81-year-old former president who has been accused of sexual harassment – which he denies –, but Deschamps side will largely be unaffected by the boardroom turmoil. The manager will announce a panel stacked with Champions League quality today.
Antoine Griezmann takes over the captaincy from Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who has retired from international football. Manchester United’s Raphaël Varane has also decided to stop playing for his country but that decision, like theinjury to Paul Pogba, will barely weaken the World Cup finalists, as reinforcements could arrive in the form of Chelsea’s Wesley Fofana, Nice’s Khéphren Thuram and Borussia Mönchengladbach‘s Manu Koné.
“We have to cover a variety of players,” said Kenny recently. “They have a lot of attacking players and in the Bundesliga, Kolo Muani and [Marcus] Thuram are top scorers in the scoring charts. They are players who were not starters for them so they have a lot of players to supplement in with the ones they have.”
Kenny’s options are more modest, but at least he does have options. Shane Duffy (calf) and left-back Enda Stevens are ruled out, but neither defender was likely to make the cut.
Left wing back is perhaps the most fascinating call as Mikey Johnston is set to make his debut against Latvia, having received his Irish passport and been recently showered with praise by Kenny. The 23-year-old’s availability, despite being unable to secure regular game time for Vitória Guimarães, where he is on loan from Celtic, puts pressure on Robbie Brady, James McClean and the in-form Ryan Manning.
Seámus Coleman might regain the right wing-back position, as Matt Doherty cannot get near the Atletico Madrid XI since his surprise January move from Spurs, and centre half options are plentiful now Norwich City’s Andrew Omobamidele is fit. The 20-year-old could return ahead of Darragh Lenihan to compete with Nathan Collins, Dara O’Shea and John Egan.
Midfield selection starts with Josh Cullen, excellent for Burnley all season, as other Championship regulars such as Mark Sykes and Sammie Szmodics – another English-born Irish passport holder – look to contend alongside Will Smallbone and Jason Knight.
Smallbone has caught the eye for Stoke City, where he is on loan from Southampton.
Ferguson’s burst of three Premier League goals and two assists, in a four game run, has him clear of the other centre forwards as Troy Parrott and Michael Obafemi enter 2023 trading more on reputation than club form, which should still be enough to be named over Adam Idah.
Another welcome sight at Irish training next week will be John O’Shea. Capped 118 times up to 2018, O’Shea joins the management as assistant coach, the role previously held by Damien Duff and Anthony Barry.
Republic of Ireland squad (possible):
Goalkeepers: Gavin Bazunu (Southampton), Caoimhín Kelleher (Liverpool), Mark Travers (Bournemouth).
Defence: Nathan Collins (Wolves), Dara O’Shea (WBA), Andrew Omobamidele (Norwich City), John Egan (Sheffield United), Seámus Coleman (Everton), Matt Doherty (Atletico Madrid), Robbie Brady (Preston NE), James McClean (Wigan Athletic), Darragh Lenihan (Middlesborough), Ryan Manning (Swansea City).
Midfield: Josh Cullen (Burnley), Jeff Hendrick (Reading), Jayson Molumby (WBA), Alan Browne (Preston NE), Will Smallbone (Stoke City), Jason Knight (Derby County), Sammie Szmodics (Blackburn Rovers).
Attack: Evan Ferguson (Brighton), Michael Obafemi (Burnley), Callum O’Dowda (Cardiff City), Troy Parrott (Preston NE), Chiedozie Ogbene (Rotherham United), Mikey Johnston (Vitória Guimarães SC).