Jason Knight has earned an upgrade. As Derby County and Wayne Rooney slump down to League One next season, the 21-year-old midfielder could springboard to higher ground.
The Premier League represents an ideal landing for Knight even as the majority of Stephen Kenny’s squad gather in the Championship. The second tier of English football is becoming a central hub for Kenny’s scouts. It’s where the Irish manager casts his net on a weekly basis. It’s at least where a player of Knight’s calibre needs to be.
“I’ve still got another year at Derby so at the moment I’m still there,” said Knight, delivering the stock answer until some concrete offers arrive this summer. “Obviously everyone knows it’s been a tough year with things behind the scenes at Derby. I’ve played my part, I’ve played a lot of games so I was happy with that aspect, but what the future holds I don’t know.”
Knight more than played his part in Derby’s impossible yet valiant fight to stay up after being docked 21 points for going into administration. The running machine from Cabinteely recovered from an ankle injury, caused by a Rooney tackle, to play 39 games in five different positions. Faced with loyalty or career progression, the choice is further diluted by his desire to become an integral part of Ireland qualifying for Euro 2024.
“Whenever I step out there I can mix it with anyone. If that offer comes in, it’s something you have always dreamt of, playing in the Premier League, at the highest level. But at the moment I am still a Derby player and that’s something I need to try and get towards.
“I love the city and the club – I have been there a while. You need to look after yourself as well. It’s a difficult situation, but it’s something I will have a think about, and the club as well.”
With Norwich City and Burnley relegated from the top flight, just as Wigan Athletic and Rotherham United were promoted from League One, the core of Irish players facing Armenia on Saturday afternoon in Yerevan will come into regular contact with each other next season. From those four clubs alone Kenny can monitor the form of Adam Idah, Andrew Omobamidele, James McClean, Will Keane, Chiedozie Ogbene and Nathan Collins.
Of the 27-man squad that plays four Nations League games over the coming 10 days, 15 are currently listed at Championship clubs. That number should increase when Gavin Bazunu, Troy Parrott, Jeff Hendrick and Conor Hourihane seek fresh loan moves away from Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle United and Aston Villa.
Mark Travers is set to become a Premier League goalkeeper with promoted Bournemouth, which may create the unusual situation of Ireland’s third choice being exposed to a standard Bazunu and Liverpool reserve Caoimhín Kelleher have yet to properly experience.
What’s certain about next season is the most expensive league in the world will never have so few Irish players in it. Séamus Coleman would be doing well to get regular game time at Everton, even with manager Frank Lampard labelling the Ireland skipper “one of the best people I have ever met, as a man and as a player” after the Toffees squirmed out of relegation misery.
The 33-year-old is contracted to Everton until June 2023 but the need to retain his place in Kenny’s Ireland XI – increasingly deployed as the right of a central trio – may prompt a drop down to where the management are doing their weekly rounds.
Nobody had to gall to ask Knight about Rooney’s involvement in the Wagatha Christie libel trial but the tabloid fodder of recent months swirled around the room when the Dubliner was prompted to accentuate the benefits of working under such a gifted, generational footballer.
“It’s his grit and determination,” Knight replied. “He showed a lot of calm in tough moments, and that was reflected in the squad and some performances. I think I picked up a lot of things – he showed a real good character this year.”