The problems Will Smallbone currently faces are football-related. Unlike in 2020, when his confidence was shattered by hair loss eventually diagnosed as alopecia.
Life in general took a turn for the worse. With the player already afraid to leave the house for fear of abuse, an anterior crucial ligament tear threatened to ruin his burgeoning Premier League career.
“To deal with alopecia you have to be so strong,” said Smallbone last year, “and I would like to be an example of how having alopecia shouldn’t stop you from achieving your dreams because it is possible.”
Recovery, mentally and physically, occurred simultaneously as a loan move from Southampton to Stoke City coincided with a spike in creativity that almost guided the Ireland under-21s to the Euros. Israel intervened. At least those were only football problems.
“Yeah, for sure. The stuff that’s happened to me over the last few years I wouldn’t wish upon anyone,” said Smallbone, speaking over Zoom from the Ireland training camp in Turkey. “I’ve shown resilience and a lot of character to know that I can take on anything that is thrown at me.”
A naturally gifted player, he performance so well for Stoke this season that Stephen Kenny saw fit to hand over a senior cap last March against Latvia, five days before the crucial European Championships qualifier versus France.
Named man of the match while operating as one of two attacking midfielders behind Evan Ferguson and Michael Obafemi, Smallbone curled a ball into the six-yard box for Callum O’Dowda to make it 1-0 inside six minutes.
That goal began with Ferguson slipping a pass wide to Matt Doherty, who cut the ball back for Smallbone’s first-time cross. Progressive movement by both wing backs and a teenage striker, all knitted together by the boy from Basingstoke, via Hugginstown in Kilkenny.
Despite a skinny 6ft-frame, he instantly took to the international arena. Not 17 minutes was played when Smallbone reappeared in the inside right channel, returning the favour for Doherty, whose chip to the back post prompted Obafemi to create Ferguson’s first Ireland goal.
“I am obviously confident in my own ability but it was very nice to have my debut go alongside a man-of-the-match. Maybe at the time it wasn’t something I thought about too much but looking back on it, it will always be something that I’m very proud of.”
Two-nil up and plain sailing – then,the now-expected Irish collapse forced Kenny to unleash Mikey Johnston and Chiedozie Ogbene, who promptly made it 3-2. When Smallbone was relieved by Jeff Hendrick on 82 minutes, everyone inside the Aviva Stadium applauded the beginning of a long and fruitful international career.
Not so fast. The France match came and went without him, with Kenny introducing five attack-minded players in the second half as Ireland chased an equaliser. Oh and Southampton, where he will return for preseason, were relegated to the Championship.
“It was tough. We’d had many years in the Premier League and it’s always tough to watch from afar. I’m sure the club will do everything they can through the summer and into next season to get back there as quick as possible.”
Over to Dragan Šolak and the good folk at Sport Republic, the investment firm that purchased 80 per cent of Southampton in 2022. Šolak, reportedly Serbia’s wealthiest person, recently toyed with buying Shelbourne FC.
So, to summarise: a genuine breakthrough season at Stoke and for Ireland ends in uncertainty. Unless he starts in Athens on June 16th. Unless he is used when it really matters.
“Well I obviously wouldn’t know just yet, but I’ll want to be involved in whatever form that is. I will just be doing my best in training over the next week to try and put myself in the best opportunity to be involved, the same as anyone in the squad.”
This week in Antalya, Turkey feels like the build-up to a cup match. Defeat to Greece would feel like the end of qualification for Germany 2024 via Group B.
“Everyone knows the importance of the game. I think there’s going to be a lot of Irish fans coming out so that will be brilliant to spur us on. We know how big the game is and we will be doing everything to go out there and win.
“It’s quite rare on the international stage to get such a long time together. We have a lot of people coming in from different clubs and it’s important that we all get back to understanding each other and training with each other. These 10 or 11 days will be fantastic for that.”