Stephen Kenny believes the healthy number of League of Ireland graduates who have gone on to claim senior caps for Ireland means the domestic game should be well able to provide a reliable source of quality players for his U21 squads.
“The reason I would say yes is not because I think it, it’s that the evidence backs it up with the number of players that have come through the league to become full internationals,” said the former Dundalk boss.
“So if they have been good enough to become full internationals, why wouldn’t they be good enough to become Under-21 internationals?
“So I would say, yes, definitely, there are players with the ability (in the league) but they have to combine that with the right mentality, the right attitude, stay injury-free and do themselves justice.”
The new U21 manager was speaking at the unveiling of a squad drawn mainly from the League of Ireland which will assemble for a training camp and game against the Ireland Amateur team next month.
Asked if he thought that League of Ireland players had been given a fair chance in the U21 set-up under previous regimes, Kenny said: “I’ve had plenty of players involved over the years. I’m certainly not going to come in and criticise previous managers. I’m not suggesting there is going to be a raft of players from this squad in my first squad against Luxembourg (in Ireland’s opening Euro 2021 qualifier in March). There mightn’t be. We’ll have to see who is available closer to the game or who is playing well. There are a lot of decisions to be made in various positions where the margins would be small.
“I’m still learning about the players and I have to see a lot more of them.”
But Kenny also made it clear he is not in the business of targeting dual eligibility players in a bid to help nudge them towards a career with Ireland.
“No, I haven’t been doing that at all, I’m just focusing on players who are Irish,” he said. “I’ll make my own decisions and qualifying players for Ireland won’t be my main objective.
“My main objective is picking the best players for the campaign, players I think have the most potential in the future. I want to nurture and develop that into a cohesive team that enjoys playing for Ireland and wants to play for Ireland and can play to a high level. I will promote players that are Irish, and that is the bottom line.
“I don’t have preconceived prejudices. Some players have gone on loan to Holland and we’ve players in Italy and Germany. We can view everything. I don’t have a directive or a determined plan. We will pick the best Irish players with the best potential for the 21s team. The objective is to be the best team we can be but the wider objective is to develop future Irish internationals.”
One dual eligibility player who is a surprise inclusion in Kenny’s training camp squad announced yesterday is Linfield’s Michael O’Connor, who had indicated in a newspaper interview in December that he was declaring for Northern Ireland.
“I have spoken to him,” Kenny confirmed. “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.”
Yesterday’s training squad announcement also saw Kenny reveal his U21 backroom team.
Former international Keith Andrews will become assistant coach alongside Jim Crawford, who leaves his role as U18 head coach. Dan Connor retains the role of goalkeeping coach with the U21s. Damien Doyle will join as the strength and conditioning coach, Gary Seery comes in as performance analyst and the medical staff are team doctor Ronan Kearney and physiotherapist Kevin Mulholland.
Kenny also announced the U21s will take part in the 2019 Toulon tournament. Ireland have previously competed in the tournament six times and will travel to France in June.
One unintended but unfortunate consequence of next month’s training camp is it will clash with this year’s Collingwood Cup, robbing UCD of three players and DCU of one.
“I couldn’t have got the players released from their clubs at any other time,” said an apologetic Kenny. “I didn’t realise at the time that it clashed with the Collingwood Cup. 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 I couldn’t help.
“But I do respect the Collingwood Cup and all the universities and it wasn’t the intention to devalue that.”
Republic of Ireland U21 training squad
Conor Kearns (UCD), Ross Treacy (Dundalk)
Andy Lyons (Bohemians), Darragh Leahy (Bohemians), Conor McCarthy (Cork City), Trevor Clarke (Shamrock Rovers), Liam Scales (UCD), John Mahon (Sligo Rovers).
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).
Ronan Hale (Crusaders), Neil Farrugia (UCD), Michael O’Connor (Linfield), Will Fitzgerald (Limerick), Zach Elbouzedi (Waterford), Karl O’Sullivan (Limerick)