‘Manager’s dream’ Knight ready to play central role in Kenny’s master plan
20-year-old Derby County skipper backs manager after nightmare start to campaign
Jason Knight in action for Ireland in the World Cup qualifier against Luxembourg at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Stephen Kenny says there will be changes for the friendly against Qatar in Debrecen on Tuesday night (7.45pm Irish time) and the manager may use the opportunity to give game time to a couple of the established players largely overlooked against Serbia and Luxembourg. But the process of bringing through the squad’s younger talent will continue too with Jason Knight one of those likely to feature again.
The 20-year-old midfielder has enjoyed a fairly spectacular rise at Derby County where Wayne Rooney named him captain barely 16 months after he had made his full league debut at the Championship club.
The former Manchester United striker has been effusive in his rise of the young Irishman, suggesting that his confidence and desire to improve remind him of his 20-year-old self and describing him as “a manager’s dream”.
With Kenny enduring something of a manager’s nightmare just now, the pace of the young player’s progress is clearly encouraging and his senior international career seems set to gather a bit of momentum over the coming months.
Against Luxembourg on Saturday evening, his ability to spot and make a pass that shifted the direction of Ireland’s forward play was clear, with Knight coolly sidestepping opponents on a few occasions as they tried to pressure him, then moving the ball to team-mates in space beyond.
Rooney has talked about the aggressive way the young midfielder gets himself around the pitch and the application he shows, both in training and games. Knight can add to it all, he suggests, on the attacking side of things, producing more “crosses, shots and assists”, but the clear sense is that he believes all of that will come from a player whose potential has already attracted a fair bit of Premier League attention, including from Chelsea, it is said, when former Derby boss Frank Lampard was there.
Séamus Coleman expressed the concern after the Luxembourg game that performances and results like it might adversely affect the younger members of the squad, but Knight certainly seemed unfazed as he spoke on Monday, offering loyalty and support to a manager who has made clear his faith in him.
“I think you can definitely see in the group he’s a really driven person and wants to do his best for our country,”said Knight. “All the boys are really behind him [but] I’ve been with him since the under-21s and it’s been a really good learning curve for me, learning under him so far.
“He’s really good at delivering information to the players and relaxed around them, but he can be forceful at times too, whatever the situation needs.
“We can all see as players that he’s trying to implement an attractive style of play for the senior international team and that’s going to take time like anything does. But we’re really behind the manager at the moment and it’s looking good so far . . . obviously not the results, but we can see we’re going in the right direction.”
Asked about Coleman’s suggestion there was a lack of desire on the part of players to get on the ball, Knight says that that is an issue for the team to address as a group. “I think that’s something we can do as players more so than the manager. It’s down to us to want the ball and move the ball quickly and show for each other. That’s something we’ve got to fix internally as players.”
Knight doesn’t give too much away about what has been said among the players since Saturday’s game but acknowledges that there was a fairly frank exchange immediately afterwards, to which the younger players were free to contribute.
With travel, there had not been much time to delve back into the detail of the defeat prior to Monday’s press conference but the key thing, he feels, is to show improvement on Tuesday evening and, ideally of course, to beat Qatar.
“It was a horrible loss to lose to Luxembourg,” admitted Knight. “But it was a learning curve for me and for everyone else. There’s frustration because we were really confident going into the game, thinking that we were going to win it and confident that we would win.
“It was a bit of a kick in the teeth to lose that game in the way we did. But we can put it right against Qatar and that’s what we are trying to do. There’s a real energy to put things right and you can sense that around the group.”