Watching Ireland’s Under-21 team on Friday night, it was difficult not to wish that the whole team could now be imported to the senior side. That we could speed up the most precarious period of these young players’ careers and fast forward to when they are established stars in top teams. We can’t, but Jayson Molumby is ready to play for the senior team.
There were about three minutes left in the game and the ball bounced loose towards the touchline near the half-way line. Zack Elbouzedi, who had come on as a substitute, was 10-yards from the ball and was about to run but stopped when he realised he wouldn’t get there in time. Jayson Molumby shot him a look that would stop most players in their tracks.
The Republic of Ireland Under-21 captain then grabbed his jersey in frustration, making a wincing, pained expression – over a ball going out of play and a teammate who had not made a run that would have proven futile. But Molumby plays like every run, pass and tackle matters, even those that aren’t made. This was evident throughout Ireland Under-21s’ win over Armenia at Tallaght Stadium. In arguably the most talented Under-21 team to play for Ireland, featuring players from Liverpool, Celtic, West Ham United and Tottenham Hotspur, it was the Brighton midfielder, currently on loan at Millwall, that impressed the most.
The 20-year-old, Waterford-native was named man of the match – despite the explosive brilliance of Aaron Connolly and Troy Parrott winning the game with a debut goal. Molumby was not only the man of the match, but he was also the man in the match. An adult playing alongside some talented, but green, teammates. The central midfielder dominated proceedings with his personality as much as his excellent ability on the ball and reading of the game. He should be in the Ireland senior squad now. If all goes to plan, he will end up captaining Ireland. He’s that good.
Armenia started the game in control. In the opening spell, when Stephen Kenny’s side lost the ball, they would find it hard to get it back. The visitors were talented and tidy in possession. After around 10 minutes of play, when the home side eventually had the ball under control, the Ireland number eight could be heard over the crowd of three and a half thousand shouting at his players, “quicker, quicker.” Every time a teammate was in possession, Molumby would always make himself available for a pass, shouting, demanding the ball.
In one sequence during the first half, he collected the ball in the middle of the pitch, turned and sprayed it out to right-back Lee O’Connor on the opposite side of the pitch. Molumby sprinted across the pitch and demanded it back, opened his body, collected the pass with his left foot and drove forward with the ball towards the Armenia penalty area. With an opposition player blocking his path, it looked as though Molumby would have to relinquish possession. Instead, he chopped down on the ball with his heel, opening up space that didn’t seem there just seconds earlier.
The Ireland captain passed the ball out to the jet-heeled Connolly on the left. The Brighton forward was about to take on the right-back but showed him mercy for once by passing back inside rather than blitzing him. Molumby got the ball on the edge of the box and wound up to shoot, but sold his opponent a dummy before returning the ball back on his stronger right foot. His shot to the bottom right-hand corner was saved by the Armenia goalkeeper and rolled out wide. Gavin Kilkenny, on the right side of midfield, collected the ball before the visitors reclaimed possession and an Armenia defender began carrying the ball up the pitch.
Molumby sprinted 20-yards across the pitch and levelled him with a hard, but seemingly fair, challenge on the edge of the penalty area, drawing gasps and claps from the crowd in Tallaght, which turned to groans when the Maltese referee awarded a foul and the Armenia player was treated for an injury, before eventually playing on. Molumby stood with his head in his hands, baffled as to why a free-kick was given. This all occurred in the space of around 30 seconds in which he showed the full range of his attributes – his excellent range of passing, spacial awareness, intelligence, power, aggression, skill and confidence.
Already in his career, Molumby has spent 15-months on the sidelines with knee injuries. He returned from those setbacks and made the bench for Brighton’s final game of last season. A quad injury has restricted his playing time on loan at Millwall, but he has played two games in the EFL Cup and 15 minutes in the Championship. Molumby is also highly-rated by his parent and loan clubs – signing a new contract with Brighton and being singled out for praise by Millwall’s manager, Neil Harris. He was named among the players of the competition for the Toulon Tournament back in June and has captained Ireland at Under-17 and Under-19 levels.
On Friday night at Tallaght Stadium, he stamped his authority on the game and was unquestionably the most influential player on the pitch. The midfielder from Cappoquin could also be the long-term answer to a problem position for the Irish senior team. At the very least, he should be part of the squad for Ireland’s remaining Euro 2020 qualification games. Molumby is a throwback, a vocal leader to takes responsibility and demands the best from his teammates.
Ireland’s midfield is arguably the weakest aspect of an average international team. On Thursday night at the Aviva Stadium, Glenn Whelan was the best of Ireland’s midfield. But the 35-year-old, along with Jeff Hendrick and Conor Hourihane, was overrun by Switzerland. The same happened against Denmark in June and will happen again next month against the Swiss in Geneva, and in November when Denmark come to Dublin. There is no obvious solution – even if a fully fit James McCarthy would make a difference.
The lack of quality in the senior set-up becomes even more frustrating when watching Kenny’s Under-21 team. They play positive, proactive football, passing from the back and pressing from the front, but they sacrifice none of the aggression and hard work that have characterised Irish teams. If only we could find a way to get these young players into the senior side and allow this new vision of an Irish team to develop – something that will hopefully when Kenny becomes senior coach next August.
In the meantime, Mick McCarthy will argue that players such as Parrott and Connolly are still too raw to be thrown into a qualification campaign and there is merit in that argument. However, no-one could say the same about Molumby. The midfielder has the ability and personality, all he needs now is the chance to showcase it at senior level.