Stephen Kenny insists a phone call this week with Swansea City striker Michael Obafemi convinced him the 21-year-old remains committed to Ireland despite failing to show up for international duty.
Thanks to a brisk activity in front of his club’s goal – four goals in the last four league games – Obafemi the most formful Irish striker ever.
But he won’t be in Dublin next week when the squad gathers to prepare to face the world No. 1 national team as the player who has struggled to have a consistent run of games in his injury-plagued careerHe wants to stay at his club to focus on his fitness.
This week there was confusion, since Ireland U-21 manager Jim Crawford had hinted on Tuesday that the striker had no interest in claiming a spot in his U-21 squad due to his discussions with Obafemi’s agent (although he appears not to be the player himself) next week a qualifier.
“I think in his own eyes he sees himself as a senior player,” Crawford said.
At least Kenny was able to bypass the agent and speak directly to Obafemi. And in Kenny’s eyes his absence, and that of Aaron Connolly too, is an easy way to excuse injury-stricken Irish players to rest their bodies during the international break.
He’s also aware that, having repeatedly emphasized the value of international football, giving the shy Obafemi a pass this time could be problematic, especially in a squad where players have appeared despite not having a chance due to injury (Séamus Coleman) or defied their club’s orders by reporting for duty in Ireland when not fully fit (James McClean) or parked a traumatic family bereavement to show up (Shane Duffy).
A conversation 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 played his first cap at senior level is a fair assessment which I wouldn’t dispute,” Kenny said.
“Michael is ambitious and I think the best is yet to come from him and he’s shown his potential in recent weeks.
“But he called me the other night and said, ‘Stephen, I really want to play for Ireland. It’s important to me, but I just have to behave properly. It’s the first time I’ve had a series of games. That’s how he feels,” Kenny added.
However, accepting this seems to flatly contradict one of Kenny’s core beliefs in the job, his repeated stance that international football must be the pinnacle of a player’s career and should supersede everything else.
“On the one hand, as a manager, I said that international football is the most important thing in your career. So that’s what I said and I understand Michael isn’t coming in, where is he then. But his reasons are genuine,” says Kenny.
“I pointed out to him that if you are there in March he has a better chance of playing in June.
“But listen, he definitely wants to play for Ireland long-term, he’s very determined.
“We haven’t lived his life where he came back from injury and hurt his hamstrings again and played a couple of games, hurt them again and hurt them again, what does that do to you psychologically and how you feel in relation to your body feel and play the despair over yourself.”
Connolly’s absence is due to injury. “He missed the Spurs game with a heel injury and he wasn’t training but playing with a degree of pain,” Kenny said.
“He couldn’t train, he got through games and recently he scored. We’re not able to let him in for a week and not train and maybe play. He himself feels he needs to fix his heel and the medics want him to fix his heel problem.”
Outside of Obafemi, there were a few other areas of interest from the 25-man squad announced yesterday by Kenny for the home friendlies against Belgium and Lithuania, notably a first call-up of Oxford United midfielder Mark Sykes, an Irish speaker from west Belfast, and there is a real sense that the FAI have staged a coup with the landing of Sykes.
Ireland squad (against Belgium/Lithuania)
Goalkeeper: Caoimhín Kelleher (Liverpool), Gavin Bazunu (Portsmouth, on loan from Manchester City), Mark Travers (AFC Bournemouth)
Defender: Seamus 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).
Midfield player: Conor Hourihane (Sheffield Utd, on loan from Aston Villa), Josh Cullen (Anderlecht), Jeff Hendrick (QPR, loan from Newcastle), Jayson Molumby (West Brom, loan from Brighton), Alan Browne (Preston), Jason Knight (Derby) , Mark Sykes (Oxford).
Forward: 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)
https://www.independent.ie/sport/soccer/international-soccer/no-issue-with-michael-obafemi-insists-stephen-kenny-as-belfast-boy-mark-sykes-gets-first-call-up-41464141.html No problem with Michael Obafemi, Stephen Kenny insists as Belfast boy Mark Sykes is called up first