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Ireland’s Under-21 Stars Should Stay In Stephen Kenny’s Team

The clamour for Ireland’s promising players to be promoted to the senior team is understandable, but it might not be that simple.

The conditions just aren’t right in Mick McCarthy’s team for them to flourish. It would be another short-term move for Irish football.


Picture the scene.

Darren Randolph has the ball at his feet. The Ireland team pushes up the pitch as the goalkeeper launches a missile down the field. Ireland win the header, the ball lands with David McGoldrick, who lays it off to Troy Parrott. 30-yards from goal, Parrott gets his head up, dribbles forward, nutmegs an opponent and passes it to James McClean on the left. McClean takes a heavy touch and loses the ball. He chases the full-back, retrieves the ball, loses it again and concedes a free-kick after committing a foul. The crowd applause his “effort” and hiss at the referee for punishing an obvious foul. The Irish players trudge back to their own half.


Or imagine this.

Jayson Molumby collects the ball from Shane Duffy, strides forward into midfield and looks for a player to pass to. Jeff Hendrick has run ahead of the opposition midfield, Conor Hourihane tries to create an angle for a pass but there is an opponent nearby. 40,000 supporters are screaming for Molumby to get a move on. He checks his run and passes it back to Duffy. He moves and creates an angle for a pass, getting the ball back in space. He looks up again. No pass on. Molumby passes it back to Duffy, who knocks it across to Richard Keogh. Keogh lumps it down the field and out of play.


Or how about this.

Aaron Connolly collects the ball on the left-wing, attempts to dribble by the opposition right-back but is dispossessed. He doesn’t track the full-back, who continues his run and puts a dangerous cross into the penalty area that almost results in a goal-scoring chance. The crowd gasp and the television camera pans to the manager looking concerned. A few minutes later, Connolly tries again to dribble past his opponent. Again, he is unsuccessful. When the ball goes out of play, Mick McCarthy pulls him aside and has a word in his ear. Connolly drops 20 yards deeper and positions himself just in front of Enda Stevens to provide defensive cover. When he gets the ball for the rest of the game, he passes inside or knocks it into the channel for McGoldrick to chase.

This is what would most likely happen if these young players were promoted to the current senior team, under the current manager.


Over the last 10 days, the vibrancy of the Under-21 team has contrasted sharply with the laboured efforts of the senior team. Kenny’s side have looked like a modern football team, a cohesive unit that play out from the back and press from the front. Players interchange positions, take up positions between the lines and pass the ball with purpose. They do all of this without losing any of the famed Irish fighting spirit.

Meanwhile, the senior team are still playing football from the 1990s. There is a lot of effort but no discernible idea of play beyond working harder than their opponents. The team is out of sync with the rest of the world and have been for some time. They are an old side, playing old football – the average age of the team that started against Switzerland was 29 years and seven months. Fans cheer for corners – probably because they know it’s Ireland’s only realistic way of scoring – and players are applauded and praised for running around.


These two teams, like the two managers, have nothing in common bar the fact both are Irish. There is no correlation between the football Kenny’s team plays and that practised by McCarthy’s side. As such, the promising underage stars – like Parrott, Molumby and Connolly – should remain with the Under-21 team until Kenny becomes the senior manager next August – or at least, they should not be involved with the senior side at the expense of playing for the Under-21s.

Their development would be aided by continuing to play under the future Ireland manager rather than the current one. They are flourishing for the 21s, but we would not see the best of them under McCarthy, who represents a completely different form of football to that adhered to by Kenny. He would only see their limitations. It would be the equivalent of saying that a player who has been excelling for a Brendan Rodgers’ team would make a great signing for a side managed by Neil Warnock.


This is not to say that these young players are incapable of making a difference for the senior team, or that they wouldn’t instantly improve it. They would, and they should already be in the squad. In a functional football country, they would be. There would be a pathway through the underage teams to the senior team and the best players would be promoted early. Declan Rice and Jack Grealish are Ireland’s players in that idealised scenario. Kenny, and not McCarthy, would already be the manager.

None of this is a criticism of McCarthy, who is a decent person and a good manager. He is doing the job to the best of his ability, the way he sees fit, the way he has for the last 25-years. If Mick felt these young players would improve the team, or were ready, he would promote them. But he is inherently conservative. He is unsure of certain players – skilful players and young players, who could easily make a mistake. This outlook is framed by the culture of British football during his formative years.

McCarthy picks his team as though they are a crew of miners in Yorkshire. He values experience, loyalty and hard work.

There’s no room for experimentation and risks are avoided at all costs. Last week, McCarthy referred to Conor Hourihane as “an actual international player.” In other words, these players you all calling for him to include are not real players yet. When they get into the first teams at their clubs, they will be in his team.


Parrott, Molumby, Connolly and the rest should remain with Kenny for the time being. They play Italy in a European Championships qualifier in Tallaght on October 10 – go and watch them play. But don’t ask for them to be “thrown” into the senior team because they’re too good to be “thrown” anywhere. This isn’t a computer game. Without Kenny to coach and encourage them, to create a tactical plan that would bring out their best qualities, these young players would be on the fringes of the senior team, getting a few minutes here or there, chasing knockdowns and retreating into their own half.

This is a special group of players who need to be guided through the most difficult phase of their career – bridging the gap between underage football and establishing themselves at senior level. They are in a great place at the moment, being coached by the future Ireland manager and playing aggressive, modern, possession-based football.


Irish football desperately needs to move past its short-termism. Promoting young players to a completely different environment, just so the national team will have someone to bring off the bench as they try to reach Euro 2020 at the expense of better teams, will do them no favours.

The natural reaction is to call for the best Under-21 players to be promoted – just last week, this writer argued that Molumby, the Under-21 captain, should be in the senior squad. But, on reflection, it will be better for Irish football in the long-term if they are allowed more time to develop with Kenny and let the senior team huff and puff their way through the next 11 months.

Like Kenny, their time will come and it can’t come soon enough.

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