Kenny sends out clear message with exclusion of McGrath from squad

Republic’s manager includes uncapped pair Conor Ronan (St Mirren) and Oxford’s Mark Sykes

The mollycoddling period is over. In dropping a regular like Jamie McGrath, due to non-selection in the third tier of English football, Stephen Kenny has revived a ruthless streak that is intended to seep into Republic of Ireland performances against Belgium, Lithuania and beyond.

It is a logical step in the evolution of a team keen to turn naysayers into disciples.

A steady frustration around the Ireland set-up and how they are judged, or let off the hook, has largely been drowned out by circumstance. Former players and Brian Kerr, the other home-grown international manager, have been scratching their heads at how easy the ride has been for Kenny.

Many of them see a half-empty glass after four wins from 20 matches since Kenny took over while others, and recent noises from the Lansdowne crowd indicates an overwhelming majority, bear witness to a steady recovery after decades of mismanagement by the FAI.


The masses stayed the course despite defeat to Luxembourg at a soulless Aviva Stadium 12 months ago. They bit their tongue after the draw with Azerbaijan, understandably buoyed by a heroic loss to Cristiano Ronaldo at Estádio Algarve.

Fans kept faith in a manager who has given 15 players their competitive debuts – an astonishing number for any international side – and were handsomely repaid as unknown figures such as McGrath and Chiedozie Ogbene became household names.

Four wins in 20 can be rewritten as one loss in 11, when 18 goals have been scored and just five conceded, as Kenny, in many instances, selected young talent unable to command regular minutes in the English leagues.

That changes with a 25-man squad to face Belgium reserves – as Roberto Martínez rests global stars Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and other 50-cap veterans – for the FAI’s centenary celebration at the Aviva on March 26th and Lithuania three days later, as Kenny moves away from players whose form does not warrant blind loyalty.

McGrath’s exclusion is telling as Kenny signed the 25-year-old for Dundalk in 2017 before handing him a creative role during last year’s World Cup qualification campaign.

McGrath took leave of St Mirren in the Scottish Premiership, moving to Wigan Athletic in January, where the Irish management are guaranteed to make regular visit to watch James McClean and Will Keane tearing up League One (the pair have 25 goals and 10 assists between them this season).

“I just haven’t selected Jamie,” Kenny explained. “It’s a tough call as he’s been really excellent for us. But his move hasn’t gone to plan for him, he’s not been featuring for Wigan and even been omitted from the squad on occasions.

“It’s not really his problem, he was in great form and doing well, but came into a team that was consistently winning and they just haven’t made the changes and he’s paid the price for that.

“My concern is not that he hasn’t been playing recently, but going forward, he may not play between now and June. So if I included him here, he may not play for six months, and I haven’t looked at how the other players do in our squad do. So that’s the decision-making process.”

Uncapped pair

No clearer message can be sent to the squad. McGrath has been replaced by uncapped pair Connor Ronan – ironically impressing at St Mirren – and Belfast-born Mark Sykes, who has been "terrific" for Oxford United.

With Adam Idah out for the foreseeable due to knee surgery, there's an open race to become the lone centre forward, with Keane or Callum Robinson firmly in the frame after in-form Championship strikers Michael Obafemi and Aaron Connolly cried off with niggling injuries.

“I went to Swansea v Bristol City a few weeks ago – Michael scored, and I had a good chat with him after the game and had a good conversation with him this week as well, and he would have been considered for selection if he’d have been available.

“He feels he needs to spend time with the physios to make sure he can continue in the vein of form. I made that point to him that he has got a better chance of playing in [the Nations Cup in] June if you are in during March. But, listen, he certainly wants to play for Ireland in the long term, he’s very determined.”

Another interesting development, slightly outside Kenny's senior radar, is Derby County manager Wayne Rooney revealing that Festy Ebosele is about to follow St Patrick's Athletic defender James Abankwah to Udinese this summer. After Cathal Heffernan's move to AC Milan and Kevin Zefi signing for Inter Milan, there will be four Irish teenagers are at Serie A clubs next season

“Personally, I would have been happy for him [Ebosele]to stay at Derby and develop because Wayne Rooney has done a terrific job developing young players there. It’s into the unknown a little for us. I am not against them [Irish players] going to Italy, so long as they play regularly. The key thing is they get an opportunity to play.”

A point drilled home by McGrath’s exclusion.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND SQUAD: v Belgium (March 26th) and Lithuania (March 29th)
Goalkeepers: Caoimhin Kelleher (Liverpool), Gavin Bazunu (Portsmouth, on loan from Manchester City), Mark Travers (AFC Bournemouth) Defenders: Seamus Coleman (Everton), Matt Doherty (Tottenham Hotspur), Ryan Manning (Swansea City), James McClean (Wigan Athletic), Shane Duffy (Brighton and Hove Albion), John Egan (Sheffield United), Nathan Collins (Burnley), Dara O'Shea (West Bromwich Albion), Darragh Lenihan (Blackburn Rovers). Midfielders: Conor Hourihane (Sheffield United, on loan from Aston Villa), Josh Cullen (Anderlecht), Jeff Hendrick (QPR, on loan from Newcastle United), Jayson Molumby (West Bromwich Albion, on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion), Alan Browne (Preston North End), Jason Knight (Derby County), Mark Sykes (Oxford United). Forwards: Callum Robinson (West Bromwich Albion), Troy Parrott (MK Dons, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur), Will Keane (Wigan Athletic), Scott Hogan (Birmingham City), Chiedozie Ogbene (Rotherham United), Connor Ronan (St. Mirren, on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers).

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent