The shape of Ireland in 2023 will hardly surprise or concern Didier Deschamps’ France. The personnel, however, will be largely unfamiliar when the World Cup finalists come to Dublin on March 27th.
As Deschamps named a French squad with household names in Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé alongside uncapped trio Brice Samba, Khéphren Thuram and Chelsea’s Wesley Fofana, Stephen Kenny’s 26-man panel includes only six players currently attached to Premier League clubs.
Of the six, only Gavin Bazunu at Southampton, Seámus Coleman at Everton and Evan Ferguson at Brighton are regular starters.
The Republic of Ireland manager has moved beyond the set piece expertise provided by Robbie Brady and Conor Hourihane as three in-form players were name-checked ahead of the European Championships qualification campaign. Two of them ply their trade in the EFL Championship, the other off the bench in Portugal.
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Callum O’Dowda’s performances for Cardiff City prompted Kenny to park Brady’s international career after 60 caps, although James McClean is also retained ahead of the 31-year-old Dubliner and Swansea City left back Ryan Manning.
“Very fine margins,” Kenny explained. “[Brady] obviously not being in the team recently at Preston – going to the games and seeing that, it is very fine margins.”
Will Smallbone’s creative streak for Stoke City keeps other Championship midfielders at bay, with the 23-year-old set to be fast-tracked into a debut come next Wednesday’s friendly against Latvia at the Aviva.
“In 3-5-2 Will can play as a right-sided or left-sided 8, or as a central 10 in a 4-2-3-1 but he is a midfield player, a good footballer,” Kenny added.
“He is finding his way, coming back from an ACL injury to find his rhythm earlier in the year. Some games were better than others and now all of a sudden he looks a really good player over the last six weeks.”
Mikey Johnston is an unknown quantity. A prodigious talent for Glasgow Celtic before injury slowed his progress, the Scottish-born winger is on loan to Portuguese club Vitória Guimarães, where he’s unable to command a regular start.
This trio – O’Dowda, Smallbone and Johnston – are expected to fill the blanks in Kenny’s preferred systems.
O’Dowda is named as a defender, Smallbone among eight midfielders and Johnston is listed alongside six forwards, although Adam Idah picked up a foot injury playing for Norwich City on Wednesday night and may need to be replaced.
“In a 3-4-2-1 Mikey can play as the left-sided 10 or the right-sided 10 but left would be his preference,” said Kenny.
“He has a good final pass, a weighted pass and he can play 3-4-1-1 off one striker in that area, not as an absolute centre forward but he is someone who can play as a central 10 in a 4-2-3-1.”
The final “one” in each formation posited is almost certainly going to be Evan Ferguson. Five goals for Brighton in the Premier League and cup competitions since December 31st separates the 18-year-old from the rest.
The other four strikers – Troy Parrott, Michael Obafemi, Chiedozie Ogbene and Will Keane – have 24 goals between them in the Championship this season. Keane tops that list with 10 for a Wigan Athletic side sitting bottom of the league. The versatile Ogbene has seven for Rotherham United.
“Evan seems to take everything in his stride,” said Kenny. “I don’t think he’s been overhyped in the media. His father [Barry] was a professional, a good man who is guiding him, more so than I even need to.
“His family can take the credit for that. He’s not been overexposed; Brighton didn’t start him last night, brought him on and that’s good for him. It’s still very early for him but it’s great to see.”
Gavin Bazunu, coming off a fine performance at Old Trafford, is certain to start in goal, mainly because Mark Travers and Caoimhín Kelleher are stuck in reserve at Bournemouth and Liverpool.
Andrew Omobamidele, having missed out on a sixth Ireland cap in 2022 due to back surgery, returns to the group at the ripe old age of 20. Despite Shane Duffy’s absence for the foreseeable future with a calf tear, Omobamidele will struggle to dislodge one from Dara O’Shea, John Egan and Nathan Collins.
If O’Dowda fills left wing back then it is a duel between Coleman and Matt Doherty, who has played just 12 minutes since joining Atlético Madrid in January, on the right.
Josh Cullen will anchor midfield and presuming Kenny’s praise of Smallbone and Johnston is translated into selection against Latvia, the last position in the side will be contested by Jayson Molumby, Jeff Hendrick, Alan Browne, Jason Knight and Mark Sykes.
Or Kenny might revert to Obafemi as a second striker off Ferguson, as the 22-year-old has proven his worth on the international stage with crucial goals last year against Scotland and Armenia.
But every question meanders back to a man who does not turn 19 until October. By then, Ireland will have one outstanding fixture in their quest to qualify for Germany 2024 – The Netherlands at Johann Cruyff Arena.
“Evan has been very, very good and he’s made it look easy at times. He’s come in and he makes good decisions, he always seems to make good decisions. He has a variety of attributes. He leads the line well, he links the play well, and he has the capacity to score goals.”
Republic of Ireland squad
Goalkeepers: Gavin Bazunu (Southampton), Caoimhín Kelleher (Liverpool), Mark Travers (AFC Bournemouth).
Defenders: Seamus Coleman (Everton), Matt Doherty (Atletico Madrid), Andrew Omobamidele (Norwich City), Nathan Collins (Wolverhampton Wanderers), John Egan (Sheffield United), Dara O’Shea (West Bromwich Albion), Callum O’Dowda (Cardiff City), James McClean (Wigan Athletic).
Midfielders: Josh Cullen (Burnley), Jayson Molumby (West Bromwich Albion), Jeff Hendrick (Reading), Alan Browne (Preston North End), Jason Knight (Derby County), Will Smallbone (Stoke City, on loan from Southampton), Jamie McGrath (Dundee United), Mark Sykes (Bristol City).
Forwards: Chiedozie Ogbene (Rotherham United), Michael Obafemi (Burnley), Evan Ferguson (Brighton and Hove Albion), Adam Idah (Norwich City), Troy Parrott (Preston North End, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur), Will Keane (Wigan Athletic), Mikey Johnston (Vitoria, on loan from Celtic).
Goalkeepers: Alphonse Areola (West Ham), Mike Maignan (AC Milan), Brice Samba (Lens).
Defenders: Eduardo Camavinga (Real Madrid), Wesley Fofana (Chelsea), Theo Hernandez (AC Milan), Ibrahima Konate (Liverpool), Jules Koundé (Barcelona), Benjamin Pavard (Bayern Munich), William Saliba (Arsenal), Dayot Upamecano (Bayern Munich).
Midfielders: Youssouf Fofana (Monaco), Adrien Rabiot (Juventus), Aurélien Tchouaméni (Real Madrid), Jordan Veretout (Olympique Marseilles), Khéphren Thuram (Nice).
Forwards: Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich), Olivier Giroud (AC Milan), Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid), Randal Kolo Muani (Eintracht Frankfurt), Kylian Mbappé (Paris Saint Germain), Marcus Thuram (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Moussa Diaby (Bayern Leverkusen).
Wednesday, March 22nd: Republic of Ireland v Latvia, International Friendly, 7.45pm
Monday, March 27th: Republic of Ireland v France, Uefa Euro 2024 qualifying, 7.45pm