He will anchor Noel King’s midfield this evening against Italy in today’s European U21 qualifier at the Waterford RSC (6pm, live on Setanta Sports) equipped with the experience of 19 appearances since the turn of the year.
Ireland will need the nous of Lenihan and his midfield partner Jack Byrne, fresh from training with the senior squad, to secure the result they need for their Uefa qualification campaign to get back on track.
Ireland boss Martin O’Neill will be accompanied his assistant in the south-east for the fixture and Keane may notice some familiar traits in Lenihan.
“At half-time of a training match against Preston North End, the gaffer told me I reminded him of a young Roy Keane,” explained the powerhouse.
“That was pleasing to hear because, as a Manchester United fan growing up, Roy Keane was my idol.”
Lambert backed up that praise by parachuting Lenihan straight into his engine room. Results have been mixed but the Scot believes he’s uncovered a gem, highlighted by him handing the Dunboyne lad a bumper new three-and-a-half year contract.
“When I throw youngsters in, it is up to them to sink or swim,” explained Lambert yesterday. “At the minute Darragh is certainly doing more than swimming. He’s performing and he’s been a big player for us.”
Equally, the player hails the manager’s influence on his ascent.
“The gaffer is great to work under,” said the 22-year-old. “He won the Champions League playing in midfield Borussia Dortmund and so gives me plenty of tips on how to improve my game.
“Last November, before he was appointed, I wasn’t even getting on the bench. It is all happened overnight, to be honest.”
His form has even provoked talk of a senior call-up but Lenihan’s focus is fully on the Italian job. Ireland trail the Group 2 leaders by four points at the midway stage of the qualifiers.
“Seeing Jack train with the seniors this week gives you belief,” he says. “I’m still only 22, though, and can’t be getting ahead of myself. All I’m thinking about is beating Italy.
“If we lose against them, you could almost say the campaign is over.”
Meanwhile, Carlo Cudicini has challenged Ireland to drag themselves back into the race for European Championship qualification by defeating his native Italy tonight.
The former AC Milan, Chelsea and Tottenham keeper , now Ireland’s Under-21s goalkeeping coach, is convinced they can turn the tables this time around as they prepare for a key double-header with a trip to Slovenia to follow on Monday.
He said: “It is a strong Italy Under-21s squad and they are highly regarded at home. The number of players with Serie A experience is quite high and they naturally benefit from that.
“They are the favourites in the group, but the performance we put into the game in Vicenza gave us real confidence. We defended very well that day and had chances on the counter-attack, but just didn’t take them.
“We have two difficult games this week with Italy and then over to Slovenia, who have done good work in developing young players recently, but we feel we can get back in the group with some good results.”
I Lawlor (Bury); B Lenihan (Hull City), G Rea (Luton Town), S Long (Reading), Connors (Dagenham); D Lenihan (Blackburn Rovers), K O’Connor (Cork City); C O’Dowda (Oxford United), J Byrne (SC Cambuur), B Miele (Shamrock Rovers); C Wilkinson (Newport County).