Two wins, six points, five goals, and a team back on track. Last week’s U21 internationals were a massive boost for Stephen Kenny’s side, after their first real taste of disappointment last month.
Kenny’s kids made the trek to Armenia and came away with a crucial win despite going down to ten men before a stunning second half display against the Swedes saw them blitz their opponents and tighten their grip on top spot in the group.
What’s more impressive is that the Boys in Green picked up six points in the absence of a host of their most experienced players, their leaders on the field, including the likes of Jayson Molumby, Dara O’Shea, Conor Masterson and Caoimhin Kelleher for either one or both games.
For Zak Elbouzedi though, a player who has missed just two of Kenny’s 12 games in charge, it was a chance to step into a new role in the absence of others.
“It was great for me,” the Waterford winger told Pundit Arena.
“We were missing some big players in both of the games so I felt like I needed to step up as one of the more experienced players in the squad.
“To play for your country first of all is the biggest honour you could ask for but then to score for your country and captain your country it’s an amazing feeling.”
Elbouzedi was instrumental against Armenia, scoring the only goal in what was a tricky test for Ireland, captaining the side in the last ten minutes, before excelling again against Sweden notching up a goal and an assist as he once again took on the role of skipper in a scintillating second half display.
The 21-year-old recognised what was required from his role as one of the squad’s more experienced players and explained that, despite not being the loudest on the pitch, he leads the team in other ways.
“I’d be a leader as one of the more experienced players in the group but there’s people like Jayson Molumby and Dara O’Shea who are bigger voices.
“I try to lead on the pitch by the way that I play and train and setting good standards but when we’re missing the likes of Jayson (Molumby) or Conor Masterson and Dara (O’Shea), I felt like I needed to step up and be more vocal which was important.”
As a player, Elbouzedi works incredibly hard for the team but has stepped up creatively when necessary, while his link-up play with Lee O’Connor on the right has been a hallmark of this Irish team.
Since starting against Luxembourg in March, Elbouzedi has featured in every competitive game under Kenny, with his only absences coming in two matches in this summer’s Toulon Tournament thanks to a dislocated shoulder.
The former Malahide United man has been a staple in the Kenny revolution and feels that the faith the manager has shown in him as an attacking player has done wonders to help improve his game.
“He’s been brilliant. The only two games I’ve missed were in Toulon when I dislocated my shoulder but he’s put a real belief in me.
“He sets high standards and he’s a winner but as an attacking player he gives me the freedom to express myself and enjoy my football within the team structure which is brilliant for me.
“I’ve played nearly every game so I feel that belief he has in me and that’s only leading to good things.”
Scoring for and captaining one of the most exciting young teams this country has seen in quite a while, it’s easy to forget that just over a year ago he found himself struggling at Scottish side Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and after his contract was terminated by mutual consent, a return home was on the cards.
Although difficult initially, Elbouzedi credits his families influence and when a call came from Alan Reynolds and Waterford, the promise of a strong run of first team games, at this stage of his career, was something he could not pass up.
“It was a bit of a weird situation coming back from Scotland,” he explained.
“I had a year left in my contract but I wasn’t playing there, I wanted to leave, I didn’t want to waste another year.
“Then when you come home you never really know what’s going to happen but in fairness, Alan Reynolds at Waterford was onto me straight away and there were a couple of other clubs too but Alan told me that I’d be playing and that I’d be back enjoying my football which would’ve been the main thing.
“My family were really good too, they never allowed me to get too down whereas other people might come home and think it’s the end but they always helped me to stay positive and be mentally strong.
“Once Alan was onto me as I said he explained that I’d be enjoying my football and in fairness he stuck to his word and he played me. I knew once someone gave me a chance I’d be able to repay them.”
Repay them he did, finding the net six times and lighting up the RSC as Waterford finished sixth in his first season at the Munster club.
His performances have understandably caught the eye of many sides in both England and Ireland and although Elbouzedi feels he has unfinished business in England, he will not be jumping to another club unless he sees it as a “correct step” in his career progression.
“I want to play at the highest level that I can whether that’s in England or Ireland,” he explained.
“There’s definitely the desire and I know that I’m good enough to play over in England so if the opportunity came and it was the right opportunity I’d take it but I just want to keep playing football and enjoying myself.
“There’s no rush for me to jump into something that isn’t the right move. I need to speak with my family and make sure that the next step is the correct step.
As far as his international career, which is thriving with Ireland and Stephen Kenny, the option is also there for the 21-year-old to represent Libya and follow in the footsteps of another former League of Ireland player, Eamon Zayed.
He qualifies through his father, who is Libyan, and despite the interest being flattering the dream for Elbouzedi has always been to wear the green of Ireland.
“Yeah I was asked to represent them. My Dad is Libyan and he had some people onto him but I want to play for Ireland. It’s all flattering but I’ve always wanted to play for Ireland.
“It’s been my dream since I was a boy and I’ve always said if I was to go and play for Libya I’d be taking someone else’s spot who maybe it would mean more to. For me Ireland is my country and that’s who I want to be playing for but obviously the interest is flattering.”