First, it was Aaron Connolly and now it’s Troy Parrott – two stars who have been lost to the Irish U21 team as Mick McCarthy makes an offer than can’t be refused.
It’s the natural order of things, of course, as Stephen Kenny well understands but, at the same time, it’s hard to see how the promotion of such key players can’t but risk damaging his own team’s prospects of qualifying for the Euro 2021 finals in Hungary and Slovenia.
“It certainly hurt us in Iceland as they were two big losses for us,” said the manager, referring to Ireland’s first loss of the qualifying campaign in which Connolly’s absence on senior duty was compounded by Parrott missing out through suspension following his red card in the scoreless draw with Italy.
“Iceland are a very good side but, after getting an outrageous penalty, they defended and we found it hard as it was a very windy day,” said Kenny. “When a team drops off like that, that is where Troy is very good because he will find pockets of space in between defenders. He is not lightning quick, he’s not a fella who is going to run off the back of players all day; he likes it into feet and finding pockets of space. That game would have been made for him. And Aaron Connolly can adapt to any situation.
“They were a loss but, listen, I’m not complaining about that. It’s great. Aaron could be part of the senior team qualifying for the European Championships and that is the bigger win really, a bigger win for Ireland. While we want to try to qualify and progress at U21 level, it is ultimately about players progressing and becoming senior internationals, so I’m absolutely delighted for Troy that he’s been called up.”
For Kenny, the immediate focus is on the upcoming back to back games away to Armenia and at home to Sweden. And, as much as he accepts that the senior side sits atop the pyramid, he also notes that winning games and qualifying for tournaments at under-age level is an important part of the player development process.
He namechecks some of the now household names who featured at the U21 finals in Italy in the summer, with England alone boasting the likes of Tammy Abraham, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Mason Mount and James Morrisson.
“That sort of calibre,” he observed. “There were a lot of good players. If you qualify and your players get that sort of experience, it does narrow the gap to the first teams. If they can perform at that level, it gives them confidence.”
As bad luck would have it, Parrott and Connolly are not the only players unavailable for Thursday’s game against the Armenians, with skipper Jayson Molumby and defender Lee O’Connor both suspended – although they will link up with the squad ahead of the match against Sweden in Tallaght the following Tuesday - and Jonathan Afolabi, Darragh Leahy and Luca Connell all ruled out through injury.
But despite being without no less than six of the players who featured in the impressive 3-1 win in Sweden, Kenny said that he would not be satisfied to come away from Yerevan with a draw.
“We’ve gone very well,” he said of a campaign which sees Ireland’s currently top of their group by one point, though Iceland, Italy and Sweden are all hot on their trail and have games in hand. The 2021 co-hosts are assured of a finals place, with the nine group winners and best runner-up also qualifying automatically. The other eight runners-up will go into the play-offs, with the victors filling the last four tournament berths.
“The group is very open,” said Kenny.
“Italy haven’t played Iceland or Sweden yet. If we were to win in Armenia, it would make it very interesting against Sweden. There’s a big motivation to beat Armenia. We were much better than them at home but only won 1-0. They’ll be a different proposition at home.”