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irish report card The good, the bad and the green shoots for Stephen Kenny's top 40 players in 2021


Ireland manager Stephen Kenny. Photo: Sportsfile

Ireland manager Stephen Kenny. Photo: Sportsfile

Ireland manager Stephen Kenny. Photo: Sportsfile

It's a new year but with few reasons to cheer for Stephen Kenny.

The Republic of Ireland manager last night lost a second member of his backroom team, with Damien Duff quickly following his goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly out the door, while on the field there have been few displays in recent months from his playing staff to set his pulse racing.

A travel ban between this country and England means that, even if he wanted to, cross-channel trips for scouting purposes are off the agenda, and a pre-Christmas stint in England, where the Ireland manager managed to get to three games in a five-day spell, will have to do for now.

Kenny called on 40 players in the games played by Ireland in 2020, but the list is a Top 40 without a hit, without an obvious No 1, more players on the slide than on the rise and if the Premier League finished with the current standings, four members of his current squad would drop into the second tier.

The Premier League is fallow ground for Kenny most weeks. Yes, 21 players eligible for the Republic have played in the Premier League already this season, which is the same tally as the entire campaign last season, with half of the term yet to play so that number could increase by season's end, but in terms of actual activity it's slim pickings as only nine Irishmen have played for their Premier League clubs so far this month.

Of the starting XI from Ireland's final international of a dismal 2020, a 0-0 draw with Bulgaria, only one player (Dara O'Shea) can be seen as a Premier League regular.


The arrival of the FA Cup this weekend will offer some relief, some sightings of lesser-seen Irishmen: Darren Randolph will play for West Ham on Monday night (and the Hammers could also add Dublin-born attacker Ademipo Odubeko, a highly-rated former Manchester United trainee, to the first team squad if David Moyes is brave).

Liverpool's Caoimhín Kelleher made his fourth appearance of the season for the Reds in last night's tie against Aston Villa.

Ciaran Clark and Jeff Hendrick could get some action for Newcastle against Arsenal, and Clark's revival in the Magpies side is one of the rare good news stories for Kenny and or Irish football from the last two months of the Premier League.

Too many of the players available to Kenny are simply out of favour and out of sorts in the Premier League, with the likes of Conor Hourihane, Jeff Hendrick, Shane Long, James McCarthy watching from the bench most weeks, while younger prospects like Jimmy Dunne and Michael Obafemi have been shunted down the pecking order, and Jayson Molumby pushed out on loan from the top flight.

And unlike last season, when the trio of Adam Idah, Troy Parrott and Aaron Connolly popped their heads up in the Premier League at this stage of the campaign, none of the younger Irish have bridged that gap this season, bar Dara O'Shea's regular presence in a relegation-haunted West Brom side.

The really big concern is over the worrying slide in the form, and career, of Shane Duffy. Loaned out by Brighton to Celtic, Duffy was at the heart of a Bhoys defence which leaked goals, though it carried on leaking them after Duffy was dropped.

When moving to Parkhead, Duffy would have relished the challenge of an Old Firm derby but when that came last month, Duffy's only contribution was off the bench in a loss. A Champions League tilt with Celtic was never even close.

Even a mid-season break offered no respite for Duffy, who left Celtic's controversial warm-weather training camp in Dubai earlier this week and returned home for personal reasons. Brighton have said they have no plans to recall Duffy early from his season-long loan but with their European campaign over and the Scottish league title looking like a lost cause, the second half of the season is unappealing, whether Duffy plays for the Bhoys again, and his career needs a reboot.

Here's how the 40 players called up by Kenny are faring.

On the up: Ciaran Clark, Aaron Connolly, Dara O'Shea, Jason Knight

It's not all grim and there are some bright spots for Irish football. Clark had, at one stage, appeared to disappear into irrelevance and he was barely mentioned in international terms, but he has recovered from a serious injury, was recalled to the Ireland squad by Stephen Kenny at the tail end of 2020 and has been a major figure for Newcastle of late, with Steve Bruce keen to tie him down on a long-term deal.

Connolly shows flashes of brilliance, scoring twice in the Premier League this season, and he is a player Kenny wants to work with on an extended basis, but Connolly's inability to get an injury-free run holds him back, summed by his last outing when Connolly scored in last week's draw with Wolves but had to be replaced a half-time due to injury.

O'Shea has stood firm in the West Brom defence this season and should be playing in the Premier League next season even if his club are not, while Knight (Derby) also deserves a bigger stage.

Derby County have told suitors they will need to spend big to land the Dubliner who is really developing while working under Wayne Rooney and Shay Given at Derby.

Holding their own: Seamus Coleman, Cyrus Christie, David McGoldrick

As Glenn Whelan did repeatedly at Stoke, Coleman has seen challengers for his shirt at Everton come and go, and while he did miss a chunk of the season through injury, and then had to wait for a return to the Everton side, Carlo Ancelotti raves about the Donegal man.

Cyrus Christie had a difficult time with Ireland in 2020 and had a shaky start to life at Nottingham Forest but he has been impressive in recent weeks, playing in every minute of every game in a five-match unbeaten run. McGoldrick has been in good form for Sheffield United, an Indian summer in his career, but he is no longer an option for Kenny due to retirement.

Struggling: Shane Duffy

Duffy has been honest about the impact that personal tragedy - the loss of his grandmother and then father in a short space of time - had on his football and the Derryman should be allowed time and space to regroup, but it's been a very testing few months for a player whose status as undroppable with Ireland could be in question, given Clark's re-emergence.

Could do better: Matt Doherty, Robbie Brady, Callum Robinson, Harry Arter, Ryan Manning

A mixture of players, some of who are just bedding in to a new contract (Doherty, Robinson, Arter, Manning) and others who are in the final year of a deal (Brady) but they all have more in them than is currently being shown at club level. First choice at Wolves for so long, Doherty is no longer guaranteed games now he's at Spurs and a red card in his last game won't help.

Brady is still part of the plans at Burnley but the Dubliner, who turns 29 next week, is facing a key spell in his career. Kenny would love to have a fully-fit, on-form Brady at his disposal but he faces the prospect of being bypassed by younger men, like Molumby and Knight, unless he can really establish himself at Burnley in the second half of the season.

Cold storage: Darren Randolph, Conor Hourihane, James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick, Shane Long, Kevin Long, Caoimhín Kelleher

A number of players who, if fit and on form, would be in contention to start in the World Cup qualifiers in March but their exposure in the Premier League is too rare.

A diet of FA Cup games can sustain Randolph and Kelleher's star is on the rise so he's not a worry, but seeing midfielders like Hourihane, McCarthy and Hendrick on the bench every week is a worry.

Relegation fodder: John Egan, Enda Stevens

Last season was a memorable one for the pair but this term is a real struggle. Locally there's very little criticism of Egan and Stevens as Sheffield United slide closer and closer to the Championship, the duo are made of strong stuff and spent too long on the road to the Premier League to just give up but escaping relegations looks to be beyond them and their team-mates.

Looking up: Seán Maguire, Alan Browne, James McClean, Darragh Lenihan, Daryl Horgan, James Collins

Stoke, Blackburn and Luton are grouped around the middle of the Championship table and could all be involved in promotion so there's hope for this batch, and while Horgan's side (Wycombe) are bottom of the table, the 28-year-old had a real revival, in international terms, last year. Browne's future may lie beyond Preston as he has ambitions and will have admirers but the Championship players cannot be ignored.

Rising stars: Jack Taylor, Ronan Curtis

Dipping into England's third tier to pad out his squad shows how shallow the pool of talent available to Kenny is, but Taylor (Peterborough) and Curtis (Portsmouth) can play at a higher level. Curtis is regularly linked with a move to the Premier League or Championship, while Taylor, uncapped at senior level but rated by Kenny, is also on the way up.

Broader challenges: Jack Byrne, Josh Cullen, Aaron McEneff, Graham Burke

Now based on the continent, Cullen (Belgium) and Byrne (Cyprus) were given limited game-time by Kenny but if midfielders like Arter and Hourihane continue to struggle at club level, they could step up in 2021.

Cullen has settled in well at Anderlecht, positive reports fed back to Kenny by his scouting team but Byrne faces an uncertain future at APOEL, with manager Mick McCarthy sacked after only one game.

Kenny called up Shamrock Rovers pair McEneff and Burke for the final game of 2020 and while they didn't play, McEneff is a player that Kenny really rates, while once his paperwork clears the door could also open for Michael Duffy, who recently committed his future to Dundalk.

Loan stars: Mark Travers, Jayson Molumby, Troy Parrott

Parrott's spell on loan at Millwall has been interrupted by injury and he's started just five of their 21 league games in a season which has been a struggle for the Lions and has yet to score.

Travers got to play Premier League football for Bournemouth last term but has been benched for most of this campaign, so a move earlier this week, on loan to League One side Swindon, will benefit the Kildare native, though a run of games at first team level, even in League Two, could see him rise above Kelleher in the chase to be Randolph's No 2.

Molumby was one of the finds of the year in 2020 at international level as he took to that stage with ease, but club football has been less fruitful, just one minute played in the Premier League and he was badly in need of a loan move.

Millwall, who had him on loan last season, remain admirers of the Waterford man and are believed to have bid in excess of £1m to buy him from Brighton, who have - for now - blocked any sale and loaned him out to Preston.

Sick bay: Callum O'Dowda, Adam Idah, Derrick Williams

Kenny is a big fan of Callum O'Dowda but the winger has had a difficult time this season and it was feared he could be out for an extended spell when a serious hamstring injury was diagnosed last month, with surgery on the cards. But Bristol City manager Dean Holden said this week the problem was not as bad as initially feared and while he could be out for three months - and is thus likely to miss the March qualifiers - the season is not a write-off.

"We're not going to have an operation. He's going to have some injections and rehabilitation, hopefully we can get him back before the end of the season," Holden said of O'Dowda this week.

But Williams, who was in a number of squads under Kenny without playing, will not be back until next term. "He's had an operation and I don't think he'll play again," Blackburn manager Tony Mowbray said.

A knee injury, sustained on Ireland duty in November, appeared to rule out Adam Idah for three months but the Norwich striker is making rapid progress and he says he should be back ahead of schedule, though a positive test for Covid-19 this week will hinder him.

Kenny rates the Corkman as one of his key attackers and a fit Idah will be vital in March.

Premier League report card

John Egan (Sheffield United)

16 appearances

Missed just one game for his club this season with concussion sustained on Ireland duty so he retains his manager's faith but the Blades are leaking too many goals.

Callum Robinson (West Brom)

16 appearances, 2 goals

Ten Premier League starts is a decent return but the fact that he's not scored since September is a worry. And yet with two Premier League goals he's still the Baggies' joint top scorer in the league. Return to the Championship is on the cards.

David McGoldrick (Sheffield United)

15 appearances, 4 goals.

The highest-scoring Irishman in the Premier League, McGoldrick is playing some of the best football of his career but sadly he's no longer available to Stephen Kenny as he opted to retire from international duty.

Enda Stevens (Sheffield United)

14 appearances

Like Egan, he has kept his place in the United side and is picked whenever available, but not helped as they suffer through a season which looks likely to end in relegation.

Dara O'Shea (West Brom)

12 appearances

Backed by Slaven Bilic early in the season, it's positive for O'Shea that Sam Allardyce also appreciates his talent but with that WBA defence conceding 23 goals in the last seven games, this season is a real test. O'Shea has coped well so far.

Jeff Hendrick (Newcastle United)

10 appearances, 2 goals

A bright start to the season for Hendrick at Newcastle faded as he lost his place in the side, and has not played for United since scoring in last month's loss to Leeds.

Aaron Connolly (Brighton)

11 appearances, 2 goals

He is being given game time by Graham Potter and two Premier League goals is a positive return but the fact that the 20-year-old, who pulled up with an injury in the Seagulls' last game, has completed 90 minutes just once for his club this season is a slight worry.

Ciaran Clark (Newcastle United)

8 appearances, 1 goal

Stirring display in his side's draw with Liverpool showed that the forgotten man cannot be cast aside. Has more to offer for club and country.

Shane Long (Southampton)

10 appearances

Manager Ralph Hasenhuttl appreciates what Long offers but one start in 17 Premier League games shows that Long, who turns 34 later this month, is down the pecking order.

Conor Hourihane (Aston Villa)

4 appearances, 1 goal

A goal in September's win over Fulham was promise of better things but Hourihane has been isolated in Villa's rise in the Premier League and he's been absent from their last six games.

Matt Doherty (Tottenham)

8 appearances, 1 goal

Life after his decade in comfort at Wolves has been a challenge, and he'd like to have more than 700 minutes of Premier League football to show for the season.

Robbie Brady (Burnley)

10 appearances, 1 goal

He has played 600 minutes in the Premier League this season but can't catch a break injury-wise and get a clear run in the side. Now in the last year of his contract so a big six months ahead, especially as Burnley's new owners may look to take the club in another direction.

Seamus Coleman (Everton)

9 appearances

He has battled with injury this season but was restored to the starting XI in their last Premier League game. He appears to have the backing of his club manager.

Kevin Long (Burnley)

6 appearances

One of the longest-serving players at Burnley, Long remains a squad player and has not played for the club since October.

Will Smallbone (Southampton)

2 appearances

Popped up with the Saints last season and gained more game-time this term. One for the future but he may need a loan spell.

James McCarthy (Crystal Palace)

5 appearances

Started the season well but has not even featured in the side's last nine games.

Jimmy Dunne (Burnley)

2 appearances, 1 goal

Had four games for the club (two in the Premier League) in a crazy September but has not been involved since.

Caoimhín Kelleher (Liverpool)

1 appearance

Massive vote of confidence in the Corkman when he was asked by Jurgen Klopp to fill in for Alisson against Wolves, on either side of Champions League games. Is now No 2 'keeper at Anfield.

Darren Randolph (West Ham United) 1 appearance

Was called on to replace the injured Lukasz Fabianski on New Year's Day but has to wait for more Premier League games.

Jayson Molumby (Brighton)

1 appearance

Just one minute off the bench for Brighton this season before a loan move this week. Game-time at Preston will suit the midfielder.

Michael Obafemi (Southampton)

1 appearance

Another frustrating season for the player, 13 minutes off the bench in September and nothing since and an injury has put paid to a loan move.

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