Ireland players are enhancing their club career prospects by performing for the national team. It has not been this way for decades.
That is not the primary motivation driving the group, but the examples are multitude.
Stephen Kenny has created a Champions League narrative around John Egan. The Republic of Ireland captain is currently playing for Sheffield United in the English Championship. Bramall Lane is a long way from the Bernabéu but Belgium manager Roberto Martínez struggled to tell the difference between Madrid and a raucous Aviva stadium last Saturday night.
“This was a very meaningful game,” said Martínez after the 2-2 draw. “The crowd made it a really, really good atmosphere.”
Kenny has forced Spurs manager Antonio Conte to witness Matt Doherty shine at right wing back while providing compelling evidence that Troy Parrott belongs in the Premier League.
The Ireland manager has made Chiedozie Ogbene a household name at age 24. Operating at wing back for Rotherham United in the third tier of English football, Ogbene is routinely transformed into an all-action number 10. Goals and assists are all but guaranteed. Same goes for Callum Robinson.
But Parrott is the glaring illustration. Instead of wondering where the Dubliner lands after a tricky loan season at MK Dons, the conversation is firmly centred around his best position. Snatching victory off Lithuania with an injury-time pile-driver will do that.
“It showed two characteristics,” said Kenny of the 20 year old. “One, that he is an exceptional technical talent to be able to strike a ball from distance with such venom and the second thing is to do it, not when you are 2-nil up, but in the 97th minute when you are 0-0.”
Parrott slotted into the left of Ireland’s attacking three, linking well with James McClean, but it is through the middle, as a silky number nine, that Kenny envisages him evolving for both club and country.
“Troy is still learning. He could end up in the play-offs this year at Wembley, so it is all good experiences. Let’s see how he gets on. He is a terrific young man and he’s very popular in the dressing room, he’s a good teammate.”
With Ogbene and Robinson nailed into Kenny’s starting line-up and Jason Knight’s latest cameo off the bench reenforcing his importance, while also remembering Adam Idah’s physical attributes, how can Parrott be accommodated from the start?
“It’s interesting,” Kenny replied. “He is playing on the right now at the moment for MK Dons and sometimes he plays on the left. I think he sees himself as a centre forward, really as a number nine and he’s probably right.
“That’s probably where, long term, his career will go.
“He played in three positions in the time he was on, he started at centre forward. When Scott Hogan came on he switched to the right and we switched him and Knighty with two minutes to go. So, in a half hour, he played three positions, he has the flexibility to do that.”
The Ireland jersey is increasing the value of the players wearing it. Enough to give their agents some leverage during contract negotiations. Gavin Bazunu’s acrobatics these past 12 months will presumably prompt Manchester City to reassess the 20 year old’s place in their hierarchy when his current loan to Portsmouth ends.
Or watch Anderlecht inevitably struggle to keep the self-exiled Josh Cullen away from English clubs.
It helps immeasurably that the 3-4-2-1 system, which demands a possession-based approach starting from the back three, is similar to how most Irish players operate week in, week out.
Kenny did express concern about the four teenagers signing for Italian clubs. Mainly because they are entering the unknown. But unlike previous Irish managements, the progress of each pioneer – Kevin Zefi at Inter, Cathal Heffernan at AC Milan, James Abankwah and Festy Ebosele both en route to Udinese – will be tracked forensically.
Others failed to take Tuesday night’s opportunity to dislodge mainstays from the senior team. Despite a 20 goal run for Wigan Athletic this season, Will Keane goes to the back of the striker’s queue. Kenny could have ignored a bumbling performance by the 29 year-old but, instead, choose to defend him.
“Will is better than he showed. He’ll gain a lot from that.”
Conor Hourihane had the ball at his feet for most of Tuesday’s friendly, yet the veteran midfielder was unable to pick apart one of the worst opponents Ireland are likely to meet. Jeff Hendrick’s loan move away from the Newcastle United bench to play regularly for QPR in the Championship should ensure that he remains a key cog in the Irish midfield come summer.
“Overall, I think it has been a very beneficial few days,” Kenny concluded. “The support we have had is amazing really. I think that will bring itself into the Nations League. I think the atmosphere at home games in June will be absolutely electric.”
A similar return as the 79,494 attendance over these two matches could prove problematic as the Russian invasion of Ukraine almost certainly steals Ireland of two competitive fixtures. The FAI hope to fill the June 4th and 14th slots, perhaps against Armenia and Scotland, which would impact the September window.
With a debt of €64.2 million needing to be serviced, the association cannot afford to lose a home game, especially considering the public’s renewed appetite to watch Kenny’s team.