Kenny’s Kids: How Ireland’s young strikers fared in 2021/2022

Ireland strikers

Four different Ireland strikers on four different paths. 

Stephen Kenny named his Uefa Nations League squad on Wednesday and it is an exciting one. The pace and power of Festy Ebosele and CJ Hamilton will get fans off their seats, Chiedozie Ogbene should continue to be Lansdowne’s greatest showman, while watching the ever-improving Nathan Collins against strong opposition will also be well worth a watch.

It’s a dynamic squad and it has the makings of being an entertaining and competitive one, but it’s not quite the squad Ireland supporters would have predicted a couple of years ago. The most spoken about prospects of Kenny’s Ireland under-21 team are yet to really cement their starting places, as unlikely lads like Ogbene and Robinson instead act as fan-favourites. 

Back then, all the talk was about former Ireland under-21 captain Jayson Molumby and the so-called ‘Fantastic Four’ of Troy Parrott, Michael Obafemi, Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly. Two of those young forwards make the cut – Parrott who has been the only ever-present under Kenny, and Obafemi who wins his first call-up under the former Dundalk manager. Idah, although rated by the manager, misses out with an untimely knee injury while Connolly fails to make his second Ireland squad in a row following an unsuccessful loan period at Middlesbrough, hampered by a persistent heel problem. 

At this particular juncture of the four players’ careers, it feels timely to take stock of their current club situations and analyse what the future could hold for them in green. They are four pretty different players in four pretty different places. 

Ireland strikers breakdown

Troy Parrott 

It’s correct to call Troy Parrott’s loan move to MK Dons a success, but it was far from clear-sailing. It was a success in the sense that Parrott learned important lessons that will set him up well for the future – but those lessons were only learned through struggle and frustration. 

Although he started the season brightly by scoring two league goals in his first three matches, things took a disappointing turn for Parrott before long. He would only score once between the 17th of August and the 8th of March to mirror the issues he encountered while on loan at both Millwall and Ipswich last season. You would forgive him if a doubt or two seeped into his young head.

However, Parrott continued to be selected almost every week (he made 41 appearances in total) as he dedicated himself to becoming a selfless team player when he was unable to find the back of the net. During the challenging period, the 20-year-old realised  “you only get one shot at this game” and through persistence, his fortunes began to change. 

Parrott bagged a brace against Cheltenham on the 8th of March and two weeks later he was the hero as Ireland beat Lithuania 1-0 at the Aviva Stadium. Four more goals followed before the end of the season and unlike a younger version of Parrott, his goal-scoring displays were married with equally impressive team-play in and out of possession.

It’s especially easy to understand why Dons manager Liam Manning persisted with Parrott when you interpret his possession statistics relative to other forwards in League One. He was in the top 5% for ‘key passes’ and ‘smart passes’, while he made more  ‘progressive runs’ than 95% of forwards in the league. 

Even when he isn’t scoring, Parrott is a valuable asset at that level and time will tell how his talents will transfer to the Championship/Premier League and the international arena. Barring a shock scenario where Antonio Conte is keen to place Parrott in his first team plans, the Ireland international will likely join a bottom-half Championship side or a relegated team like Derby County on loan next season and that’s probably the best option for him right now. 

Season Rating: 7.5/10

Michael Obafemi

Kenny explained Michael Obafemi’s inclusion in Ireland’s Nations League squad by stating that his “all-round game has improved no end” which, to be fair, is a sentiment shared by Swansea City supporters. Truth be told though, it was pretty likely Obafemi would make the squad regardless, seeing as he scored 12 goals in his last 16 Championship games for the Swans. 

The relevance of Obafemi’s wider improvement is not that it earned him a place in the squad but rather that it gives him a fair chance of starting for Ireland next month. The youngster’s ability to press as the first line of defence is no longer doubted after a season under the progressive-minded Russell Martin, while his passing statistics speak for themselves. 

Obafemi is very different to Parrott under a number of headings as, instead of dropping deep and getting on the ball, he prefers to be economical with his involvements in the right areas. There were games last season where Obafemi had less than ten touches but still scored, which is in considerable contrast to the industrious likes of Idah who have led the line for Ireland in the past. 

He might not be a natural fit but you would hope Kenny and his coaching team are flexible enough to accommodate that style of striker in their team. It’s perhaps unlikely that Obafemi will start in Yerevan versus Armenia while he’s still getting up to speed with the Irish playbook, but the long-standing post-Keane narrative of “Ireland need a goal-scorer” could be solved if the former Southampton forward is utilised intelligently at some point over the next four games. 

Overall, Obafemi had an outstanding season and any Swansea promotion attempts in 2022/2023 will have the one-cap wonderboy at the heart of their plans. He developed the ‘fox in the box’ trait very early on in his career and the more tools he adds to his box, be it hold-up play or pressing, the better he will become. 

Season Rating: 8/10

Ireland strikers breakdown

Aaron Connolly 

Whatever joy Obafemi experienced in his debut Championship was not shared by Aaron Connolly. 

Connolly missed out on Kenny’s Uefa Nations League squad after scoring just twice for Middlesbrough during his time on loan from Brighton. The 22-year-old joined Chris Wilder’s men last January and appeared 19 times but it ultimately proved to be a difficult few months for the Galwegian. Finishing has always been an issue for the Ireland international and he ended the season in the bottom 6% of Championship forwards for conversion rate. 

Connolly’s inefficiency in front of goal eventually saw him relegated to the ‘Boro bench for the final five games of the season, but in his defence, there was a mitigating factor at play. According to Kenny, Connolly was not in contention for the Ireland squad as he is suffering from a heel problem which required injections throughout his time at the Riverside Stadium. 

As a result, it would be harsh to criticise Connolly for failing to deliver at Middlesbrough but that is not to say that he isn’t now in a difficult position ahead of next season. The expectation is that he will spend the year out on loan at a different Championship club where, at this point, he will need to start showing the promise he displayed at underage level for club and country or face a slide down the divisions. 

There were times when Connolly was effective for both Ireland and Brighton until it came to his end product so it would be wrong to give up on him just yet – a full pre-season and a second stab at the Championship could put him in contention for Ireland’s Euro 2024 qualifiers but he will need to stay injury free first. 

Season Rating: 5/10

Adam Idah

The Ireland squad is in a good place but it will be made a deal better when the Norwich pair of Adam Idah and Andrew Omobamidele return from injury. 

Although still searching for his first international goal, Idah has put in some tremendous shifts for Ireland to date and looked set to apply his international know-how to the Premier League before being ruled out for the season with a knee injury back in February. The Corkman featured seventeen times across the season but started five consecutive matches for the first time prior to the injury, including his goal-scoring display versus Everton. 

Dean Smith’s side picked up seven points from the last three games Idah played but conversely only earned one point from the following seven fixtures without him. Thankfully, Ireland are yet to suffer as badly in his absence but the stat certainly underlines what an important team player Idah can be, whether he is scoring or not. He excelled particularly well against Everton and Crystal Palace during that period to assure followers that his masterclass away to Portugal last September was no one-off freak occurrence. 

Idah will spend next season in the Championship where he will hopefully go and get even more games under his belt. As a rangy hold-up striker the more experience he attains the better and more intelligent he will become. The fact he caused Premier League defences such hassle at the age of 21 means he is on course to enjoy a good season in the second tier before hopefully emerging as a new beast when Norwich inevitably return to the top flight in 2023. 

More so than the other three strikers, Idah’s season is dampened by “what ifs” but from the small sample size of his January/February performances, he arguably hit the greatest heights of them all during that purple patch. Parrott needs another smart loan move, Obafemi needs to keep up his hard work, Connolly needs to hit the reset button, but you get the feeling Idah will be quite alright. 

Season Rating: 7/10

We hope you enjoyed our Ireland strikers breakdown. For extensive coverage of Ireland’s best up and coming prospects follow Kenny’s Kids on Twitter.

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