Ireland’s midfield options are only improving.
Earlier this month it was Josh Cullen and Jamie McGrath who caught the eye for the Boys in Green (and blue) as the midfielders impressed against Azerbaijan and Qatar respectively. Cullen was instrumental in Ireland’s counter-attacking peformance in Baku, while Tuesday before last, McGrath proved he has all the quality required to be an important link-man for Stephen Kenny’s side.
It was refreshing to see technical midfield players at the centre of positive Ireland performances. God knows it’s been a rare thing over the last decade, but perhaps times are changing. We have seen steady improvement for some time now and Ireland’s third goal against Qatar to complete Callum Robinson’s hattrick was poetry in motion.
The amazing sequence of passes that led to Callum Robinson's hattrick goal 🤯
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) October 14, 2021
Stephen Kenny getting the most out of the Ireland midfield
Josh Cullen and Jamie McGrath are relatively new faces to the Irish public, but Jeff Hendrick has looked like a new player in recent windows too. The 29-year-old has struggled to express himself since the 2016 Euros, but his talent was there for all to see against the Qataris at the Aviva Stadium.
Maybe his natural game was largely on a leash under Martin O’Neill and Mick McCarthy. Maybe the same could be said for his club performances under the pragmatic Sean Dyche and Steve Bruce. Whatever the reasons for his improvement, Hendrick has been excellent lately and getting a tune out of the much-maligned Newcastle man will go down as a big box ticked for Stephen Kenny.
Positive performances are finally turning into positive results under this regime and the fluidity of Ireland’s midfield has been central to the effort. For once, the middle of the park is more constructive than industrious, and what’s exciting is that the management team will have more options to choose from before long.
Bourenmouth’s Gavin Kilkenny started his sixth game of the season against Stoke City on Tuesday night. The 21-year-old was recently converted into a deep-lying-playmaker by Scott Parker and is now blossoming for the Championship table toppers.
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) August 9, 2021
Bouremouth play a possesion-based brand of football that suits the former St Kevin’s Boys youngster down to the ground. Kilkenny completed the most passes of any player on the pitch (77) in their 2-0 win over Callum O’Dowda’s Bristol City on the 16th of October and followed the performance up with another sixty passes against Stoke City three days later. The Dubliner’s enthusiasm to get on the ball has quickly made him a fan favourite at the Vitality Stadium, where he goes by the flattering nickname of ‘Miniesta’.
Kilkenny starts in a ‘number six’ role for his club and this following clip is typical of his play-style:
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) October 17, 2021
Gavin was unfortunate to miss out on the last Ireland squad. He lost his place in the Cherries lineup in the weeks leading up to the international window as the more experienced Ben Pearson, Jefferson Lerma and Lewis Cook returned from injury to shunt him down the pecking order. Next time around though, he should have a much stronger argument for inclusion.
Harry Arter has struggled for gametime with League One side Charlton this month and Conor Hourihane, although he played well against Qatar, was subbed off for Sheffield United in the 38th minute on Tuesday evening against Milwall. All weighed up, Kilkenny is probably Ireland’s most in-form midfielder besides Josh Cullen and knowing Stephen Kenny’s selection policy, his age and match sharpness should also swing in his favour.
Maybe next year’s Nations League will be when we see Gavin Kilkenny truly show his qualities in the Irish shirt, but he certainly deserves a place in the squad before then.
Another Irish midfielder who is very close to a call-up according to Stephen Kenny, is Peterborough ace Jack Taylor. Taylor played under Kenny for the Ireland U21s and has since developed into an intelligent central player who is very comfortable at Championship level.
Taylor is a steady, level-headed operator who could prove to be a useful cog in the Irish machine. Like most of Ireland’s options, the 23-year-old is a modern midfielder who likes to take the ball and move it forwards with short simple passes. However, what separates him from the crowd is his shooting ability from long-range.
What a hit from Jack Taylor (23) last night for Peterborough 🇮🇪⚽️🔥
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) October 21, 2021
It’s an attribute seldom seen in Irish teams, and as much as Ireland have developed a positive passing game recently, adding players capable of scoring out of nothing is always tempting. Callum Robinson hit home five fine goals for Stephen Kenny’s side in the last international window but the goal-scoring responsibility needs to be shared around if Ireland are to continue their winning form. Right now, Shane Duffy continues to look like the next most likely man to find the back of the net, but thankfully that could soon change.
Conor Coventry’s loan move to Peterborough from West Ham hasn’t quite burst into life just yet. It’s a competitive midfield at Weston Holmes Stadium which includes the aforementioned Jack Taylor and the Irish eligible Sammie Szmodics. First preference usually goes to permanent players when selection calls are tight and so the 21-year-old has been mainly limited to substitute appearances.
But his time will come. Coventry has made huge strides for the Ireland U21s this year. He was a member of the Stephen Kenny side which included the likes of Dara O’Shea, Troy Parrott and Adam Idah a couple of seasons ago and he now captains the team under Jim Crawford in 2021. Since 2019 he has amassed seventeen U21 appearances for the Boys in Green and scored two goals in the last two months. The first came from a pre-planned corner routine against Bosnia and Herzergovina, while the other was from the spot against Luxembourg at Tallaght Stadium.
Cool from Conor 😎
Conor Coventry’s penalty gives Ireland U21 the 2-goal cushion
— FAIreland ⚽️🇮🇪 (@FAIreland) October 8, 2021
Similar to Taylor, Coventry is able to control a game with a maturity beyond his years. His character and intelligence made him captain material in the eyes of Ireland underage and West Ham United academy coaches and there is a good chance he will develop into a really street-smart midfielder the more and more he plays.
Unlike a certain somebody, Conor Coventry looks set to follow in Josh Cullen’s footsteps and go from a highly-touted West Ham United prospect to a seasoned Ireland international in due course. He might not have the ‘Miniesta’ technique of Gavin Kilkenny or the rocket-powered boot of Jack Taylor, but he could well be the brains behind the Irish operation before long.