WHEN Ireland’s World Cup campaign controversially hit the buffers in Paris last November, the name Paul Green would have meant little to aggrieved and lamenting supporters in this country.
But just a month later, the Derby County midfielder quietly took the bold step of writing to the FAI to inform them of his Irish eligibility and now, barely 10 months later, he stands poised to make his competitive debut for his country in the opening game of the European Championship campaign.
“My family always pushed me and my granddad always pushed me to put my name forward,” says the Yorkshire-born 27-year-old. “But, obviously, being down in the lower leagues, I thought they’d never look at me. The higher I got, and then with a season in the Championship under my belt, I thought I’d put my name forward and see what came of it.”
What has come of it is a remarkable breakthrough for a player who qualifies for Ireland through his Westport-born grandfather, a speedy ascension which he simply couldn’t have envisioned when he put pen to paper at the end of last year.
“Definitely, it has just come so quick for me,” he says. “Being called into the training squad for the two weeks in May, then getting 25 minutes against Paraguay and then a full game against Algeria — and topping it off with a goal — was just fantastic. Then playing probably one of the top four teams in the world, Argentina, was just a dream come true — tough, but a great experience.”
The rapid rise, albeit late coming, of Green’s international career, speaks volumes for Giovanni Trapattoni’s belief in the player, who is now favourite, ahead of Darron Gibson, to fill the midfield role vacated by the injured Keith Andrews in Yerevan on Friday.
And doubtless part of Green’s appeal for the manager is his willingness to adapt his natural game for the good of the international team.
“At club level, I’m more attacking, I play a different position,” he says. “But with Ireland, the manager knows what he wants you to do and he sets that out. It was nice being in the training squad and playing a few games in there before I did actually get in the team. I knew what he wanted me to do and felt comfortable with it — protect the back four and when the ball does go forward, try to get the second bits. Just start off attacks, really. Hopefully, I’m doing that job.”
It has helped too that, on his first three outings for his country, Green — industrious, clever and a crisp passer of the ball — appeared to take the transition to international football in his stride.
“The only time I was a bag of nerves was when I had to sing a song (The Wild Rover) in front of the squad the first time,” he says with a laugh.
If Green does get the nod on Friday, he could do worse than seek further reassurance from Sean St Ledger, another Irish player who, having been thrown in at the deep end when selected to make his competitive debut away to Bulgaria last June, not only survived but thrived.
Now declaring himself fully recovered from injury, the Preston centre-half is expected to reestablish his partnership with Richard Dunne in Yerevan, for the start of what he reckons will be a successful qualification for the European Championship finals for the first time in 22 years.
“I believe we can do it,” he says. “I think if we can reproduce the form that we showed in the last campaign, then we’ve got a hell of a chance. Hopefully we get a good referee too and we’ll be alright. What can we improve? Tough question. We did quite a lot of things right. But the last-minute goal against Italy — we can cut those sorts of things out. It’s all about the minor details, really.”
Like his manager, St Ledger is also a believer in thoroughly researching his opponents — especially when they are a comparatively unknown quantity like Armenia.
“It makes it a bit more difficult,” he reflects. “When you’re playing, say, Italy, you know what the players are all about. Obviously some players have got particular traits, some tricks that they do and sometimes you can read what they’re going to do. Whereas you can go somewhere like Armenia and you don’t know what the striker’s going to do, it’s kind of hard to get the information on them sometimes. But I’ll do my best to do my research on the players.
“Obviously we all have the video stuff and the video man does the strikers and that’s something that I like to do ‘cos I believe that people do have traits, whether it’s a stepover or a Cruyff turn. And if I can get a heads up on them, then that’s great.”
The heads up on Armenia’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan is that he scored a hat-trick against the Irish U21s last year, is now a member of the senior panel and has just moved to Shaktar Donetsk for €6 million.
“He must be rubbish then,” St Ledger laughs. “Nah, it’s obviously great for the lad. The thing about it these days is that these teams, they’re all up and coming. So it’s going to be a tough game. They’ve got a lot of energy in the team but we’ll be able to match it, I’m sure.
“And hopefully we’ll come away with the three points.”
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