Two new names in the mix as Stephen Kenny names his Ireland squad

Nations League: Festy Ebosele and CJ Hamilton join senior ranks ahead of June fixtures

Stephen Kenny has shown no reluctance to blood new players since his first game as Republic of Ireland manager back in September 2020, 16 in all given their competitive debuts by the time he renewed his contract in March of this year. And in his latest squad, named on Wednesday in advance of June’s four Nations League fixtures, two more new names have been added to the senior ranks: Derby County’s Festy Ebosele and Blackpool’s CJ Hamilton.

The other headline inclusion in Kenny’s squad was that of Swansea striker Michael Obafemi who, at just 18, made his senior debut under Martin O’Neill 3½ years ago. But a combination of injuries, limited opportunities at Southampton and a slow start with Swansea City after moving to the Championship club last summer has made the wait for a second cap a lengthy one.

There’s no place in the squad for Shane Long, Darren Randolph or Robbie Brady, with Callum O’Dowda also omitted. Matt Doherty, Adam Idah, Andrew Omobamidele and Aaron Connolly are missing through injury, but Cyrus Christie has been recalled, the right back now looking for a new club after being released by Fulham having spent the second half of the season on loan at Swansea.

Kenny sees Ebosele, who has represented Ireland at all underage levels, as a work in progress, the 19-year-old from Enniscorthy, who joined Derby from Bray Wanderers in 2018, “still learning”. But he did enough at Derby County the last while to earn a move to Italian Serie A side Udinese, who he will join this summer.

The loss of Doherty and concerns over Séamus Coleman’s fitness, after he missed Everton’s game last Sunday with a groin injury, was, said Kenny, a factor in Ebosele’s selection.

“I see Festy as a right winger, but he’s someone who can play at right wing back, and we just had to make sure we’re covered in that area. But a wing back isn’t necessarily a defensive position, depending on who you’re playing, and his speed really frightens defenders.”

Hamilton is also a winger, who can play on either flank, the 27-year-old qualifying to play for Ireland through his mother. “I know he lived for 14 years in Waterford, but he was someone I had very little information on,” said Kenny. “He’s a very, very quick winger, he has a lot of pace, and he has a very good attitude. He’s had to contend with injuries but he made a good impact for Blackpool in the second half of the season.”

Obafemi, meanwhile, earns his recall after scoring 12 goals in his last 16 Championship appearances, Kenny describing his performances for Swansea in the second half of the season as “the best I’ve ever seen from him”.

The Dubliner had expressed his frustration in the past over his omission from the squad, but Kenny waved away any notion that he was a “difficult” player, insisting his relationship with him is “grand”.

“If everyone was the same, life would be dull. Michael’s a very charismatic guy and I know he’s proud to play for Ireland, he’s excited about coming in. None of us is perfect. Michael is different. As a young player, he’s learning all of the time and I’m hoping he can make a full contribution in this window.”

Ireland play the first four of their six Nations League group fixtures in June before completing their campaign in September. That campaign opens with a trip to Yerevan on Saturday week where they will play Armenia, before returning to Dublin to take on Ukraine (June 8) and Scotland (June 11th), finishing their summer schedule with the return fixture against Ukraine in Lodz, Poland (June 14).

While Kenny’s focus is fixed on the first of those games, he talked about the significance of the games against Ukraine in light of the war in their country, 2,000 free tickets being allocated by the Football Association of Ireland to Ukrainian refugees for the game at the Aviva Stadium.

“What’s happening is a tragedy,” said Kenny. “The fact that [these games] are happening at all is a miracle. Thousands have died, thousands more will die. We have seen the situation where Ukrainian people from Ireland have gone into Ukraine to defend their nation and have died.”

“President Zelenskiy has decided to let the Ukraine national team represent the country, and he’s right. People can get fatigued and switch off the war. If we have learned anything from history it’s that when one country invades another, it doesn’t stop there. And Russia are not just talking about invading Ukraine, they are talking about invading other countries. So, this game is a significant game in our football history.”

Goalkeepers: Caoimhín Kelleher (Liverpool), Gavin Bazunu (Manchester City), Mark Travers (AFC Bournemouth).

Defenders: Séamus Coleman (Everton), Cyrus Christie (Fulham), Enda Stevens (Sheffield United), 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 (Aston Villa), Josh Cullen (Anderlecht), Jeff Hendrick (Newcastle United), Jayson Molumby (West Bromwich Albion), Alan Browne (Preston North End), Jason Knight (Derby County).

Forwards: Callum Robinson (West Bromwich Albion), Troy Parrott (Tottenham Hotspur), Scott Hogan (Birmingham City), Will Keane (Wigan Athletic), Michael Obafemi (Swansea City), Chiedozie Ogbene (Rotherham United), CJ Hamilton (Blackpool), Festy Ebosele (Derby County).

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times