Is the current Ireland under-21 squad stronger than the ‘Kenny’s Kids’ generation?
It was easy to follow the emergence of Stephen Kenny’s under-21 team when he took charge in 2019. Ireland hadn’t really produced any young players for nearly nine years so all eyes were set on that one promising team.
Now it’s a little bit different – even a little bit confusing. With the Irish first team dominated by young players, some of whom are still eligible for the under-21s, there is less attention paid to the under-21 team itself.
That’s left the next generation of Irish footballers slightly under the radar, with some players, despite maybe being more talented than some of ‘Kenny’s Kids’, only getting half as much recognition as them. In some ways, this is a good thing.
It means more reinforcements are on their way to boost the Ireland senior team, it means these next players can develop with half of the scrutiny faced by the likes of Troy Parrott, and it also means Irish football’s production line is operating as it should do – not with one “golden generation” every decade or more, but rather with a steady flow of talented footballers.
U21 SQUAD ANNOUNCEMENT | Oxford star Tyler Goodrham included for first time 🇮🇪⚽️🔥
🔹 Newcastle defender Alex Murphy gets call up
🔹 Goodrham (3 goals + 3 assists in 5 League One apps) in midfield
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) August 31, 2023
Comparing the 2019 under-21s and 2023 under-21s.
To contextualise the current under-21s team I came up with the idea to do a little exercise. In this article I take the Ireland under-21 squad Kenny chose this week four years ago for his first European Championship qualifying campaign and compare it to the squad Crawford chose last week for the same competition.
Importantly, there is no consideration for what the 2019 players are like now but rather their stature in September 2019. This means looking at their 2019 clubs, their place in said club’s pecking order, their age at the time, their talent…and then mixing those components to calculate their value/potential.
It’s an imperfect science, obviously, but it’s a fun and semi-useful one.
Notes: (1) ‘Premier League 2’ age groups changed from U23s to U21s last season. (2) Comparison is made to Kenny’s first competitive two-game window (Vs Armenia and Sweden) in September 2019.
#IRLU21🇮🇪 squad announced 🔥
Excited to see our young guns in action?
— Ireland Football ⚽️🇮🇪 (@IrelandFootball) August 28, 2019
Caomhin Kelleher (Liverpool, 20 + 4) Vs Josh Keeley (Spurs, 20)
Back in 2019 Caoimhin Kelleher was on Liverpool’s bench as they beat Tottenham Hotspur in the Champions League final. He was yet to make a first team appearance for the Reds but he was already a well known prospect after impressing in Liverpool’s under-23s side.
Keeley joined Tottenham Hotspur from St Patrick’s Ahtletic in the summer of 2022. He was a regular in a struggling Spurs team last season but so far this season he has two clean-sheets and just one goal conceded in his first three games.
Ireland U19 goalkeeper Josh Keeley started for Tottenham's under-21 side yesterday and kept a clean-sheet as they defeated Bromley 2-0 🇮🇪🔥
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) July 21, 2022
Heading into respective Ireland under-21 campaigns, they both found/find themselves as the best underage keepers at big Premier League clubs. That made this head-to-head one of the most difficult to decide on, but Kelleher edges it. Liverpool journalists and underage experts tipped the Corkman for bigger things back then than what appears to surround Keeley at the moment.
Winner: Caoimhin Kelleher (Kenny 1-0 Crawford)
Gavin Bazunu (17 + 4) Vs Killian Cahill (Brighton, 19)
Gavin Bazunu played for Manchester City’s under-18 side in the 2018/2019 season after joining from Shamrock Rovers the previous summer. Despite being just 17, his ambition for the 2019/2020 campaign was to break into the Man City under-23 team and become an Ireland under-21 international. An indication of his remarkable talent.
Killian Cahill is another former Shamrock Rovers academy ‘keeper. He is two years older than Bazunu was in 2019 but to his credit, he is starting for Brighton’s under-21s and we all know how impressive the Seagulls academy tends to be.
Killian Cahill (GK), Andrew Moran (AM) and Mark O'Mahony (ST) start for Brighton U21s 🇮🇪⚽️👊
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) March 18, 2023
Cahill is a fine prospect who could get a decent loan move in the next twelve months, but Bazunu was just different. He played for Shamrock Rovers in Europa League qualifiers more than a year before being picked for the under-21 squad in question. That, added with the fact the mighty Man City considered him good enough for their academy, speaks volumes.
Winner: Gavin Bazunu (Kenny 2-0 Crawford)
N/A Vs Owen Mason (Wexford) N/A
There is one extra goalkeeper in Crawford’s squad and that is Owen Mason who is currently playing well for Wexford FC in the League of Ireland First Division where he is on loan from parent club Mansfield Town.
Danny McNamara (Newport County on loan from Millwall, 20 + 4) Vs Sam Curtis (St Pat’s, 17)
Reliable right-back Danny McNamara was on the books of Millwall in 2019 but got loaned out to League Two outfit Newport County. The previous season he spent brief loan spells with non-league outfits Welling United, Dover Athletic and Havant & Waterlooville and that was enough to get him an Ireland under-21 call-up.
For Sam Curtis (17) it’s a bit different. While he’s not at a club of Millwall’s stature, anybody who has watched him for Pat’s will know that’s he’s destined to play for clubs in even higher places than the Championship.
Man City are determined to sign Ireland U19 right-back Sam Curtis from St Pat's, @RTEsoccer understands 🇮🇪⚽️🔥
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) October 10, 2022
At the age of just 17 and already one of the best defenders in the League of Ireland, Curtis is definitely more valuable now than McNamara was four years ago.
Winner: Sam Curtis (Kenny 2-1 Crawford)
Darragh Leahy (Bohemians, 21 + 4) Vs Alex Murphy (Newcastle United, 19)
Darragh Leahy was making strides for Bohs prior to his first competitive double-header for the Ireland under-21s. He played 25 times in the Premier Division in the 2018/2019 season and took his chance for the Ireland under-21s at the Toulon Tournament in the summer of 2019.
And then there is Alex Murphy. The left-back looked far beyond his years with Galway United in the First Division before signing for the mega-rich Newcastle United in the summer of 2022. He quickly became the captain of their under-21s side and started for the first team in their 2023 pre-season fixtures.
A great goalscoring start for Ireland U19 defender Alex Murphy today 🇮🇪🔥
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) July 20, 2022
While Leahy had better first team League of Ireland pedigree, there is no doubting that Murphy is a bigger prospect now than Leahy was in 2019. Leahy was never this close to a Premier League debut.
Winner: Alex Murphy (Kenny 4-4 Crawford)
Lee O’Connor (Manchester United, 19 + 4) Vs Sean Roughan (Lincoln, 20)
Lee O’Connor was a decent prospect for Manchester United’s under-23s and made 21 Premier League 2 appearances the season before coming into Kenny’s Armenia and Sweden camp. His versatility was one of his points of difference but he was mostly deployed as a right-back under Kenny at the invitational Toulon Tournament shortly before the featured international window.
Lincoln City left-back Sean Roughan is taking a different route. He isn’t playing in the academy of a big Premier League team – that’s despite trials at Chelsea and the recently relegated Southampton – instead he is getting as much senior football under his belt as he possibly can. If reports are to be believed, first and second tier clubs are still interested in him, but as a permanent fixture in the Lincoln team, he decided to sign a new contract this summer.
This isn’t a perfect comparison. Roughan plays as a left-back and left-sided centre-back, while O’Connor, although very versatile, was primarily a right-back at the time. A large degree of the hype around O’Connor stemmed from the fact he was a regular player for the Manchester United under-23s – and that’s fine. Roughan however, has proven himself much more in the professional game. Remarkably, he already has 60 first team appearances for League One play-off hopefuls Lincoln City and that’s in addition to 15 games with his old loan club Drogheda United where he excelled as a centre-back. O’Connor’s academy displays suggested he would be good enough to play first team football but Roughan has already proven it.
Winner: Sean Roughan (Kenny 4-5 Crawford)
Ireland U19 left-back Sean Roughan had a hand in two Lincoln City goals yesterday 🇮🇪⚽️🔥
He does well to progress the play for the first goal but his cross for the second goal is magnificent 🏹
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) August 28, 2022
N/A Vs James Furlong (Brighton, 21)
The current Ireland under-21 squad has an extra fullback. James Furlong just joined Hull City from Brighton’s academy on a permanent basis. The former Shamrock Rovers left-back spent the second half of last season on loan with Scottish Premiership team Motherwell and gave an encouraging showing over his 11 appearances.
Dara O’Shea (West Brom, 20 + 4) Vs James Abankwah (Udinese, 19)
Dara O’Shea is flourishing as a Premier League centre-back with Burnley at the moment but his path was not always so clear. Although he was contracted to West Brom four years ago, the Dubliner had spent consecutive loan spells with the lowly Hereford and Exeter City before being called into Kenny’s camp in September 2019.
James Abankwah is a year younger than O’Shea at this chapter of his career and finds himself on loan at League One club Charlton from Serie A side Udinese. He has already started in Italy’s top flight and has been tipped for big things by Ireland underage coaches for some time now.
JAMES ABANKWAH STARTS AGAINST JUVENTUS IN SERIE A 🚨 pic.twitter.com/LNMtcfLSZY
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) June 4, 2023
While their situations aren’t hugely different, Abankwah edges this one. He is younger and beats O’Shea on both status of parent club and calibre of loan club.
Winner: James Abankwah (Kenny 2-2 Crawford)
Conor Masterson (QPR, 20 + 4) Vs Sean Grehan (Palace, 19)
Conor Masterson featured on Liverpool’s bench in their 3-0 Champions League quarter-final victory against Manchester City in 2018, leaving Irish fans excited as to what could be for the centre-back. By the time Kenny named his Euro qualifying squad, he was a key man for Liverpool’s under-23s and had already featured for Ireland U21s at the Toulon Tournament.
Grehan, like Masterson, is a regular for a Premier League 2 side. He is a crucial player for Crystal Palace’s academy team and recently featured on the bench in the first team’s Carabao Cup clash with Plymouth Argyle.
The Under-19 @SSEAirtricityLg ladies and gentlemen! 🇮🇪⚽️🤯
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) October 27, 2021
Grehan is a year younger now than what Masterson was in 2019 and, to his credit, he’s almost in as good a place as Masterson was before the 2019 European Qualifiers. The small difference is Masterson was at the second best club in Europe at the time, he was pressing for a first team cup debut at said club, and greater hype naturally followed.
Winner: Conor Masterson (Kenny 3-2 Crawford)
Liam Scales (UCD, 21 + 4) Vs Anselmo Garcia MacNulty (Zwolle, 20)
Liam Scales was a name circulating around the League of Ireland in 2019 as the ball-playing defender showed plenty of promise in a struggling UCD side. At the age of 21 he was still raw but he had shown enough to convince Kenny he was worth being picked.
Anselmo Garcia MacNulty learned his trade in the academies of Real Betis and Wolfsburg before joining Eredivisie side PEC Zwolle over the summer. He made his first Eredivise start last weekend in his side’s 2-1 win over Almere City.
Ireland U19 defender Anselmo Garcia MacNulty in action for his loan club NAC Breda (Dutch second tier) on Friday night 📸
The team play in front of 19,000 passionate supporters every week and they might have a new hero very soon.
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) August 7, 2022
Scales was a tidy prospect in his day but with 38 games in the Dutch second tier (on loan with NAC Breda last season) and now an Eredivise debut under his belt, MacNulty has to be the winner of this one.
Winner: Garcia MacNulty (Kenny 3-3 Crawford)
Nathan Collins (Stoke, 18) Vs Bosun Lawal (Celtic, 20)
Nathan Collins (18 + 4) was a huge prospect in September 2019. In the previous 2018/2019 season he had already made three appearances for the Stoke City first team and was the star man in the Potters’ under-23 team.
Bosun Lawal (20) is another serious prospect. Plenty of modern defenders are comfortable on the ball but elite athleticism is also required to make it at the top level and the Celtic man (currently on loan with Fleetwood Town) has both.
Ireland U21 international Bosun Lawal made his Celtic first team debut earlier today as they took on Greenock Morton in the Scottish Cup 🇮🇪⚽️🔥
Bosun is the captain of Celtic 'B' and can play as a defensive midfielder or as a centre-back.
This has been a long time coming ☘️ pic.twitter.com/Y1CIlarLr3
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) January 21, 2023
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Lawal win Ireland caps in the future but Collins becoming a full international was a near certainty.
Winner: Nathan Collins (Kenny 4-3 Crawford)
Jayson Molumby (Millwall, on loan from Brighton, 20 + 4) Vs Killian Phillips (Palace, 21)
Jayson Molumby was only freshly back from a long-term injury when Kenny made him under-21 captain in 2019. He was playing for Brighton’s under-23s at the back end of the 2018/2019 season and signed a loan deal with Millwall that summer. Prior to the September international window, he played a key role in the 21’s Toulon Tournament performance where they went unbeaten in the group stages against Bahrain U23s, China U22s and Mexico U22s.
Killian Phillips (21) is five months older than Molumby was while representing the Ireland under-21s, but brings similar tireless work-rate and team-player ethos to the fold. He is currently on loan at Wycombe from Crystal Palace; his second loan spell away from Selhurst Park after last season’s Young Player of the Season contribution at Shrewsbury.
Killian Phillips (CM, 20) has made a great impression at Shrewsbury so far 🇮🇪
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) February 5, 2023
Phillips has far more first team experience and is possibly more of an asset to the current Ireland under-21s for the this campaign than Molumby was to his team in 2019. That, however, is not the point of this article. The real question is which player has more potential and more value to Irish football. Molumby’s struggles with injuries, rather than a lack of ability, denied him the chance to go out on loan during his Brighton academy days, so that shouldn’t be held against him. As soon as he was fit he secured a Championship loan (a higher level than Phillips has ever played) and was immediately made Ireland under-21s captain. It’s a close one but Jayson wins for that reason.
Winner: Jason Molumby (Kenny 5-5 Crawford)
Conor Coventry (West Ham, 19 + 4) Vs Matt Healy (Belgium, 21)
Before the 2019 European Qualifiers, Coventry had already made his West Ham first team debut, his Ireland under-21 debut and was the captain of the Hammers under-23 side. Like Josh Cullen before him, he showed signs of becoming a full international from a young age.
Matt Healy is currently on the books of Belgian second tier side Francs Borains where he already has two goals this season. He was previously contracted to Ipswich but spent most of his time scoring long-range belters on loan with Cork City.
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) April 18, 2022
Healy will be a tidy contributor to Crawford’s team this campaign but Coventry certainly had better pedigree back in 2019. This was one of the easier picks.
Winner: Conor Coventry (Kenny 6-5 Crawford)
Jack Taylor (Barnet, 21 + 4) Vs Ed McJannet (Lecce, 19)
Jack Taylor is currently a bit-part Championship midfielder with newly promoted Ipswich but there was a time when he was a hot shot. After leaving the Chelsea academy he joined Barnet and made his debut aged 15 all the way back in 2013. By 2016, he had made good progress and even played for the first team against Norwich City in the EFL Trophy. By 2019 he was still at lowly Barnet but that didn’t stop him from scoring a brace against Mick McCarthy’s Ireland seniors in a 2019 training game before the European Championship qualifiers.
McJannet left Luton Town to join Serie A club Lecce in the January of 2023 where he now plays for their under-19 side in Primavera 1. He’s highly regarded by FAI coaches and has already won two under-21 caps. What he lacks however is first team senior experience. He has never featured at first team level for either Luton or Lecce.
Another Irishman on his way to Serie A 🇮🇪🤝🇮🇹
Luton Town have confirmed the departure of Ireland U19 midfielder Ed McJannet who has agreed terms with Italian side Lecce.
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) January 31, 2023
Although Taylor was two years older than McJannet when selected for Kenny’s campaign, I think he has to go down as the better prospect. He had enough first team evidence behind him to suggest he’ll have a good career – something McJannet maybe lacks.
Winner: Jack Taylor (Kenny 7-5 Crawford)
Jason Knight (Derby, 18+4) Vs Adam Murphy (St Pat’s, 18)
Jason Knight was just eighteen while playing for the Ireland under-21s in 2019. 2018/2019 saw him make huge strides as he progressed from the Derby U18s to the Derby U21s and even appeared on the Rams bench for their Championship play-off ties with Leeds and Aston Villa.
Adam Murphy is taking another path. The St Pat’s man, also 18, is a key man in the Saints midfield at the top end of the League of Ireland. Energetic, physically mature and technically comfortable, he’s tipped to go far. Bristol City lead the race for his signature at the moment.
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) June 26, 2023
The two youngest midfielders in their respective squads, both (if reports are to be believed in Murphy’s case) pretty close to becoming first team Championship players. Murphy beats Knight for experience in men’s football but Knight had already built quite the reputation for himself with Ireland underage and Premier League 2 performances. I’d have a different opinion tomorrow but for today it’s Knight.
Winner: Jason Knight (Kenny 8-5 Crawford)
Jake Doyle Hayes (Aston Villa, 20 + 4) Vs N/A
Kenny’s 2019 team had an extra centre-midfielder. Jake Doyle-Hayes was playing in the Aston Villa academy at the time but wasn’t one of the players capturing many fans’ attention.
Gavin Kilkenny (Bournemouth, 19 + 4) Vs Zak Gilsenan (Blackburn, 20)
Kilkenny signed his first professional contract with Bournemouth in April 2018 and was promoted to first team training the following summer. He started, scored and won man of the match in a pre-season contest with Lyon and made his competitive debut for the Cherries in August 2019 against Forest Green shortly before linking up with the Ireland 21s for their European qualifiers.
Attacking midfielder and winger Zak Gilsenan would be spoken about an awful lot more only for a tough run with injuries. The Blackburn Rovers man was something of a prodigy who spent time in the academies of Barcelona and Liverpool before ending up at Ewood Park in 2018. Now fit and firing, he’s a regular on the Rovers bench in the Championship and, even better, he has two goals and one assist in two EFL Cup appearances this term.
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) January 15, 2023
The situations of both players heading into a European Qualification campaign are strikingly similar. Gilsenan, however, given his youth pedigree, his current upward trajectory and the fact he has already scored senior goals, suggests he has a bigger capacity than his predecessor.
Winner: Zak Gilsenan (Kenny 8-6 Crawford)
Troy Parrott (Spurs, 17 + 4) Vs Andrew Moran (Blackburn on loan from Brighton, 19)
Parrott occupied a number ten role during his under-21 days under Kenny – a position some think might suit him better today. Only 17, he wasn’t an important player for Tottenham’s under-23s just yet, but he had scored 14 goals in nine under-19 Premier League games the previous season. He hadn’t even made his under-21s debut before the September window of 2019, but expectations were through the roof.
Number tens tend to excite fans by their very creative nature. That was the case with Mandroiu, Ronan and Parrott in 2019…and it’s definitely the case with Moran. Usually mentioned in the same breath as Ferguson during their Brighton under-21s days together, the 19-year-old is a bright spark to be excited by. He’s currently on loan with Blackburn in the Championship where he has gone straight into the starting lineup.
A Premier League debut for Andrew Moran.
A first Premier League start for Evan Ferguson (one goal and one assist).
Expect these two to enjoy long Premier League careers.
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) January 3, 2023
Moran is more than two years older than Parrott was when heading into his first under-21 European Championship qualifiers but each player has their own path and my understanding is that Moran could have played under-21s football long before he did only for concerns about his size and strength. As we know, Parrott did almost everything right in academy football – and top performances in underage competitions get the imagination ticking – but, although to a lesser extent, Moran’s Premier League 2 showings from last season did the same thing for those following closely (19 games, 10 goals, 6 assists), as did his Ireland under-21 friendly displays (3 games, 1 goal, 3 assists). Adding to his case is the fact that he’s now gone and joined Blackburn Rovers on loan, a promotion chasing Championship team where he’s a starting player – quite the contrast to under-18 football. There’s a lot of context behind this one but for me Moran is a more exciting player now than Parrott was in 2019.
Winner: Andrew Moran (Kenny 8-7 Crawford)
Danny Mandroiu (Bohemians, 20 + 4) Vs Tyler Goodrham (Oxford, 20)
Kenny’s assistant Keith Andrews described Danny Mandroiu as “technically outrageous” during his under-21 days. With a bag full of tricks, 10 goals and 5 assists defining the midfielder’s 2019 League of Ireland season, you could see where Andrews was coming from. Mandroiu was perhaps the biggest prospect in the league after returning home from the Brighton academy.
Ireland under-21s new boy Tyler Goodhram is the same age now as Mandroiu was in 2019. He is though, a little further along in his development. He already has 53 appearances for League One side Oxford United and he’s started this season terrifically with three goals and one assist in four starts.
Oxford United have confirmed that attacking midfielder Tyler Goodrham (20) has been selected in Jim Crawford's Ireland U21 squad and that is superb news for Irish Football 🇮🇪
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) August 31, 2023
As much as Mandroiu was an exciting domestic talent in 2019, Goodrham’s capacity to excel in League One at a young age should excite Irish fans that little bit more.
Winner: Tyler Goodrham (Kenny 8-8 Crawford)
Zack Elbouzedi (Waterford, 21 + 4) Vs Tony Springett (Norwich, 20)
Zack Elbouzedi’s pace was (and is) freakish. Playing for Waterford after returning to Ireland from West Brom’s academy via Inverness, he was a counter-attacking nightmare for League of Ireland clubs and he played impressively for the Ireland under-21s before the European Championship qualifiers even started.
Tony Springett progressed from the Norwich under-21s to Norwich first team training two seasons ago. He made his Premier League debut against West Ham on May 22 before being sent on loan to Derby County in the following campaign. This season he is back on the Norwich bench and coming on regularly with seven appearances to his name already.
A first Premier League start for Ireland underage international Tony Springett 🇮🇪⚽️🔥
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) May 11, 2022
As well as Elbouzedi did whenever called upon in Ireland underage action, Springett’s CV is much stronger.
Winner: Tony Springett (Kenny 8-9 Crawford)
Neil Farrugia (UCD, 20 + 4) Vs Rocco Vata (Celtic, 18)
Neil Farrugia started on the left-wing for Kenny’s first Ireland under-21s friendly against Luxembourg. The UCD speedster was in confident form in the League of Ireland Premier Division at the time and his athletic displays left a lasting impression on the now Republic of Ireland manager.
Rocco Vata is just 18 years old but made four first team appearances for Celtic last season. Although currently playing (and excelling) for ‘Celtic B’, he was strongly linked with a transfer away from Celtic Park throughout the summer with Italian clubs like Verona swooping. His potential is well noted across Europe at this stage.
A Scottish Premiership debut for Ireland U19 attacker Rocco Vata tonight as he came on for Celtic in the 85th minute against Hibernian ☘
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) December 28, 2022
Farrugia was a great League of Ireland prospect in his time but never was he as highly tipped as Vata. Certainly not when he was only 18.
Winner: Rocco Vata (Kenny 8-10 Crawford)
Aaron Connolly (Brighton, 19 + 4) Vs Conor Carty (St Pat’s, 21)
Prolific Premier League 2 talisman Connolly spent time on loan with Luton Town in the 2018/2019 season but it was cut short by injury. To his credit, the way he bounced back after the disappointment was superb. First, he was sensational for the Ireland under-21s at the Toulon Tournament and then he broke into the Brighton first team squad and featured against Manchester City before linking up with the 21s for their September dates.
Carty previously played in the same Wolves team as Ireland U21 captain Joe Hodge, but unlike Hodge he didn’t win a senior team appearance for the Premier League side, instead moving to Bolton. A tricky year that included games for Bolton B, Oldham Athletic and Gateshead improved when he moved to St Pat’s on loan back in February. He has only scored four goals in 28 League of Ireland appearances, but his athletic contribution makes him a valued part of Jon Daly’s team.
18 year-old striker Conor Carty might be slipping under the rader but the Wicklow man has been in good form for Wolves U23s lately and scored for the second time in four games today 🇮🇪⚽️🔥
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) May 10, 2021
Carty has had a respectable League of Ireland season but we’re talking about two different levels here.
Winner: Aaron Connolly (Kenny 9-10 Crawford)
Adam Idah (Norwich, 18, + 4) Vs Sinclair Armstrong (QPR, 20)
Idah’s Ireland underage record was spectacular: 20 goals for the Ireland U17s, two goals for the Ireland U18s and another two for the Ireland U19s (as per transfermarkt). He also scored four goals under Kenny with the under-21s before the start of the 2019 Euros qualifiers. Leading into that campaign his form for Norwich City’s under-21s was red hot with 12 goals and 4 assists in 19 games. He did not, however, feature for the Canaries first team even once.
Armstrong is a year and seven months older than Idah was in September 2019 but he has squeezed a lot of impressive experience into that window of time. The QPR striker featured 22 times in the Championship last season. Most of those came from the bench, but this season he is the Rs’ starting forward and scored his first goal in August against Cardiff. Armstrong never had the underage pedigree of Idah but he did have enough athletic excellence to make his League of Ireland debut as a fifteen year old with Shamrock Rovers and the technical side to his game is flourishing with time.
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) August 12, 2023
This one is tough and probably divisive. One’s final opinion will probably come down to how much they value underage international and academy performances relative to men’s football. For me, it’s neck and neck but Armstrong might just be the more valuable player. In most cases, the prolific 18-year-old academy star (Idah) would be considered to have a lot more potential than the 20-year-old grafter (Armstrong), but Armstrong has a unique profile – the more his skills sharpen to complement his athleticism, the more deadly he will become. Even then it’s a flip of a coin.
Winner: Sinclair Armstrong (Kenny 9-11 Crawford)
Johnny Afolabi (Celtic, 19+4) Vs Johnny Kenny (Shamrock Rovers on loan from Celtic, 20)
Before joining Celtic ‘B’, Johnathan Afolabi spent the 2018/2019 season in the Premier League 2 with Southampton. He wasn’t especially prolific (4 goals in 14 games) but his hold-up play was always valuable.
Johnny Kenny’s season hasn’t exactly been spectacular either. He is on loan at LOI league leaders Shamrock Rovers from Celtic and has chipped in with a modest four goals and three assists. He did however, register a lovely goal for the Ireland under-21s back in June when he curled one into the back of the Icelandic net at Turner’s Cross.
Johnny Kenny's brilliant winner from earlier on 🎯
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) March 26, 2023
Winner: Johnny Afolabi (Kenny 10-11 Crawford)
Michael Obafemi (Southampton, 19 + 4) Vs Aidomo Emakhu (Millwall, 19)
Michael Obafemi was unlike anybody else in the 2019 squad. The then Southampton striker had already made his senior debut under Martin O’Neill when Ireland met Denmark in the 2018 Nations League. And not only that – he also had six Premier League appearances under his belt – six appearances that brought one goal and one assist.
Aidomo Emakhu brings similar qualities to Obafemi. The rapid 19-year-old can play through the middle or on the wing and, like Obafemi, he is playing first team football prior to his first Ireland under-21s qualification campaign. The former Shamrock Rovers man has one goal and one assist in four Championship appearances with Millwall this season, which is certainly impressive going.
— Kenny's Kids (@KennysKids) August 5, 2023
As talented as Emakhu is, nobody on the current under-21s squad list has as much pedigree as Obafemi did back in 2019 so for that reason he wins this particular battle.
Winner: Michael Obafemi (Kenny 11-11 Crawford)
Summary: Kenny’s Kids Vs Crawford’s Kids
Final score: Kenny’s Kids 11-11 Crawford’s Kids
Breakdown: Goalkeeper (Kenny 2-0 Crawford), fullbacks (Kenny 0-3 Crawford), Centre-backs (Kenny 2-2 Crawford), centre-midfielders (Kenny 4-0 Crawford), advanced midfielders (Kenny 0-3 Crawford), wingers (Kenny 0-2 Crawford), forwards (Kenny 3-1 Crawford)
Crawford’s team boasts of better talent at fullback, in advanced midfield areas and on the wings.
Watching the Ireland senior team you would have to say all three areas need an injection of quality as soon as possible so this is a positive development.
Worryingly, Kenny’s side came out as 4-0 winners in the centre-midfield category, but it should be noted that Ireland under-21 captain Joe Hodge (Wolves, 20) is currently out injured, Will Smallbone is over-age for this campaign and star centre-back Bosun Lawal is also a solid midfield option.
The striking options, as expected, were better when Kenny was in charge but Evan Ferguson is still eligible for Crawford’s under-21 team and will be for another three years.
The recent call-ups of Zak Gilsenan (Blackburn), Tyler Goodrham (Oxford) and Tony Springett (Norwich) come as a major boost to Ireland’s chance of qualifying, without them Kenny’s squad would be easily stronger.
It didn’t look like Crawford’s team could encourage fans as much as Kenny’s 2019 team but the addition of those three players should have a significant impact on the team’s performances, their entertainment value and their results in the imminent campaign.
Also worth watching is how League of Ireland prospects like Sam Curtis and Adam Murphy fare in the under-21s arena. If this was 2019 both players would almost certainly be playing for Premier League under-18 or under-21 teams but due to Brexit they have had to remain in Ireland to get men’s football until turning 18.
The trade off of getting such men’s first team exposure is the lower standard of coaching (and less contact hours) compared to the elite English level. Whether or not we can say Irish players playing domestically is a net positive could depend on how they compare to their English academy predecessors at this level.
The under-21s open their campaign at Turner’s Cross this Friday night against Turkey (KO 7.30pm). That game is closely followed by another home fixture in Cork against San Marino on Tuesday (KO 7.30pm), giving Ireland fans a fine sample size of what to expect from this exciting group moving forward.
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