Stephen Kenny insists he will pick the best players available or those with the greatest potential to represent the Republic of Ireland at senior level as under-21 manager, something that suggests a bit of a break with what was perceived to be recent policy.
In addition to managing the team, Kenny’s predecessor, Noel King, had a “player identification” role with the association which gave rise to repeated suggestions that his selections were influenced by the desire to get young British-born players to declare for Ireland and involved in the system.
King denied this was a significant factor in his deliberations but Kenny is adamant that it will not shape his decision making as he heads into a year in which the Under-21s will play at least 11 games. That comprises of seven European Championship qualifiers as well as a minimum of four at the annual Toulon Tournament – the first time Ireland will compete in the prestigious international event since 2002.
“I don’t have a directive,” said Kenny yesterday in Abbotstown where he named a squad of locally based players for a training camp at the start of February. “We will pick the best Irish players for the 21s team with the intention of having the best team we can but with wider objective of producing future Irish internationals.
“I make my own decisions and that won’t be my main objective – getting players qualified. My main objective is to pick the best players for the campaign, players I think have most potential for the future while trying to nurture and develop a cohesive team that wants to play for Ireland and can play to a high level.”
Asked if he had been speaking to any of the players who qualify to play for Ireland but have not yet declared while in England for a number of Under-23 clubs games in recent weeks, he said he didn’t see it as the priority.
“No. I haven’t been doing that at all. I’m just focusing on players who are Irish, it’s not something I’m actively doing.
“I will promote players who are Irish; that is the bottom line but I don’t have preconceived prejudices. We can look at everything.”
He has seen footage of Bayern Munich’s Ryan Johansson who has previously played for Ireland but featured for Luxembourg late last year but the two have not spoken.
One player who does seem to be on board is Michael O’Connor, the Dundalk born striker who scored twice for Linfield in their Irish Premiership win at Newry Town on Tuesday night.
The 20-year-old previously represented the Republic of Ireland at underage levels but said in an interview before Christmas that he hoped to play for Northern Ireland at under-21 level, something sure to have gone down well with supporters of his current club.
However, Kenny has a long-standing relationship with the player and insists that he is very much up for answering this call up.
“I have spoken to him, yeah,” he said. “Michael played for me in the Champions League against Legia Warsaw, he came on in that game and he was only 17. So I know him well because he came through the youth system at Dundalk. There had been speculation about his going to Northern Ireland but the International Department here assured me I could pick him and he wants to come in.”
Kenny got an early lesson in the domestic politics of his new role as it became apparent that his training camp, which will include a game against the Irish Amateurs on Wednesday, February 6th in Whitehall, clashes with the universities competition, the Collingwood Cup. Three UCD players – Conor Kearns, Neil Farrugia and Liam Scales – will now miss the tournament as will St Patrick's Athletic midfielder Jamie Lennon who is a student at DCU.
“Yeah, listen, I’ve great respect for all the competitions and the Collingwood Cup is important to all the universities ,” said Kenny, who sounded like it was a line he had had to repeat a few times in recent days. “But I couldn’t have got the players released at any other time.
“They’re all professional players under contracts and there’s no way the clubs will release them in the first week of the season. All the managers would like to play them next weekend in their last games ahead of their first league games as well. I didn’t realise at the time to be honest that it clashed with the Collingwood Cup. I hadn’t realised that. It was unfortunate. It’s not something I wanted to happen. I tried to make provisions and move it but it wasn’t possible. It’s just one of those situations that I couldn’t help.”
Kenny has named Keith Andrews and Jim Crawford as his assistants for the upcoming campaign which gets underway on March 24th in Tallaght with a game against Luxembourg (Ireland's group also includes Italy, Sweden, Iceland and Armenia) while Dan Connor stays on as goalkeeping coach.
Andrews, who started his coaching career at MK Dons before returning home to Ireland where he works extensively in the media, is currently on the FAI run Pro Licence that began on Monday while Crawford would know most of the current under-21s from having worked with them as manager of the under-18s. “I’m very pleased with the backroom staff I’ve been able to appoint,” said Kenny.
Republic of Ireland U-21 training squad
Goalkeepers: Conor Kearns (UCD), Ross Treacy (Dundalk)
Defenders: Andy Lyons (Bohemians), Darragh Leahy (Bohemians), Conor McCarthy (Cork City), Trevor Clarke (Shamrock Rovers), Liam Scales (UCD), John Mahon (Sligo Rovers).
Midfielders: Dan Mandriou (Bohemians), Will Fitzgerald (Limerick), Aaron Bolger (Shamrock Rovers), JJ Lunney (Waterford), Jamie Lennon (St. Patrick's Athletic), Brandon Kavanagh (Shamrock Rovers), Robbie McCourt (Bohemians).
Forwards: Ronan Hale (Crusaders), Neil Farrugia (UCD), Michael O'Connor (Linfield), Will Fitzgerald (Limerick), Zach Elbouzedi (Waterford), Karl O'Sullivan (Limerick).
Assistant coaches: Keith Andrews, Jim Crawford; Strength and Conditioning Coach: Damien Doyle; Goalkeeping Coach: Dan Connor; Performance Analyst: Gary Seery; Physiotherapist: Kevin Mulholland; Team Doctor: Ronan Kearney.