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joys in green There's no issue with Michael Obafemi, insists Stephen Kenny as Belfast boy Mark Sykes gets first call-up


Oxford United's Mark Sykes: Call-up

Oxford United's Mark Sykes: Call-up

Oxford United's Mark Sykes: Call-up

Stephen Kenny insists that a phone call with Swansea City striker Michael Obafemi this week has convinced him that 21-year-old remains committed Ireland even though he’s a no-show for international duty.

Thanks to a flurry of activity in front of goal for his club – four goals in the last four Championship games – Obafemi is the most in-form Irish striker around.

But he will not be in Dublin next week when the squad assemble to prepare to face the No 1-ranked national team in the world as the player, who has struggled to have a consistent run of games in an injury-scarred career, wants to stay at his club to focus on his fitness.

Confusion reigned this week, as Ireland U-21 manager, Jim Crawford, had suggested on Tuesday that, based on his conversations with Obafemi’s agent (though not, it seems, the player himself), the striker had no interest in taking a place in his U-21 squad for a qualifier next week.

“In his own eyes, I think he sees himself as a senior player,” Crawford said.

Kenny has, at least, been able to bypass the agent and speak to Obafemi directly. And in Kenny’s mind, his absence, and also that of Aaron Connolly, is a simple case of excusing injury-plagued players from Ireland duty to allow their bodies rest over the international break.

He is also aware that, after he repeatedly stressed the value of international football, giving an appearance-shy Obafemi a pass this time could be problematic, especially in a squad where players have turned up even with no chance of playing due to injury (Séamus Coleman) or defied their club’s orders by reporting for Ireland duty while not fully fit (James McClean) or parked a traumatic family bereavement to turn up (Shane Duffy).

A chat between McClean and Obafemi about commitment would be fascinating to overhear.

“I think the fact that he sees himself as a senior international because he made his first cap at senior level, that’s a fair assessment I wouldn’t argue with that,” Kenny said.

“Michael is ambitious and I think the best is still to come from him and he’s shown potential in the last few weeks.

“But he was on the phone the other night to me and he said: ‘Stephen, I really want to play for Ireland. It’s important to me but I just have to get myself right. It’s the first time I’ve had a run of games.’ That’s the way he feels,” added Kenny.

Yet accepting that seems to flatly contradict one of Kenny’s core beliefs in this job, his repeated stance that international football has to be the pinnacle of a player’s career, and should supersede all else.

“On one hand I, as manager, have said international football is the most important thing of your career. So I have said that and I do get the point Michael not coming in, where does that leave him. But his reasons are sincere,” Kenny says.

“I made that point to him, that he has got a better chance of playing in June if you are in during March.

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“But, listen, he certainly wants to play for Ireland in the long term, he is very determined.

“We have not lived his life where he’s come back after injury and injured his hamstring again and played a couple of matches, re-injured it and re-injured it, what that does to you psychologically and how you feel about your body and about yourself, the desperation to play.”

Connolly’s absence is down to injury. “He missed the Spurs game with a heel injury and he’s not been training, but playing with a degree of pain,” Kenny said.

“He has not been able to train, he’s been getting through matches and he scored the other night. We’re not in a position to let him come in for a week and not train and maybe play. He himself feels he needs to sort his heel out and the medical people want him to sort his heel issue out.”

Outside of Obafemi, there were some other lines of interest from the 25-man squad announced yesterday by Kenny for the friendly games at home to Belgium and Lithuania, most notably a first call-up for Oxford United midfielder Mark Sykes, an Irish speaker from west Belfast, and there’s a genuine sense that the FAI have pulled off a coup by landing Sykes.

Ireland squad (v Belgium/Lithuania)
Caoimhín Kelleher (Liverpool), Gavin Bazunu (Portsmouth, on loan from Man City), Mark Travers (AFC Bournemouth)

Defenders: Séamus Coleman (Everton), Matt Doherty (Tottenham), Ryan Manning (Swansea), James McClean (Wigan), Shane Duffy (Brighton), John Egan (Sheffield Utd), Nathan Collins (Burnley), Dara O’Shea (West Brom), Darragh Lenihan (Blackburn).

Midfielders: Conor Hourihane (Sheffield Utd, on loan from Aston Villa), Josh Cullen (Anderlecht), Jeff Hendrick (QPR, on loan from Newcastle), Jayson Molumby (West Brom on loan from Brighton), Alan Browne (Preston), Jason Knight (Derby), Mark Sykes (Oxford).

Forwards: Callum Robinson (West Brom), Troy Parrott (MK Dons, on loan from Tottenham), Will Keane (Wigan), Scott Hogan (Birmingham City), Chiedozie Ogbene (Rotherham), Connor Ronan (St Mirren, on loan from Wolves)

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