Football

Stephen Kenny's U21 Squad Is Most Exciting Collection Of Irish Talent In Years

Stephen Kenny's U21 Squad Is Most Exciting Collection Of Irish Talent In Years

Although it was only the League Cup, the Irish exploits in England's third-biggest competition thus far has been enough to set tongues wagging.

With Aaron Connolly and Michael Obafemi scoring in the second round, and Nathan Collins and Jayson Molumby starring in the round previous, there may finally be a light at the end of the tunnel. Years of nothingness may soon be cast aside as a band of players barely old enough to drink are finally coming to the fore.

Stephen Kenny has announced his squad for U21 Euros qualifiers against Armenia and Sweden, featuring a host of talent that Ireland has rarely seen at U21 level. The squad contains talent all over the park, none more so than the attacking portion.

Since Robbie Keane's powers started waning at the beginning of the decade, Ireland have been crying out for attacking options that could achieve even a percentage of what Robbie brought to the table. The five attackers named by Kenny are not the second coming of Keane, unfortunately. Instead, all five bring different skillsets to the Ireland set-up, but with one thing in common: goals.

Aaron Connolly, fresh off his debut goal for Brighton, is a goalscoring winger who impressed at the Toulon Tournament. The Galway man caused Brazilian right-back Emerson all sorts of problems in the semi-final. Likewise, Adam Idah continued his excellent record at U21 level at the Toulon Tournament, and has scored four goals in just six U21 appearances. Although he couldn't cap off his Norwich debut with a goal against Crawley Town, the College Corinthians alum is well-regarded by all who have worked with him. Plus, he's still just 18.

ireland under 21s

Jonathan Afolabi started the summer without a club, having been released by Southampton at the end of the season. However, having starred under Tom Mohan at U19 Euros, the Tallaght striker has signed a long-term deal with Celtic. His ex-Southampton teammate Michael Obafemi is already a full international, having made his debut against Denmark in the Nations League. His goal against Fulham in the League Cup will further solidify his place in Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhuttl's plans as well.

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However, the player that's under more pressure than most to succeed is Tottenham's Troy Parrott. The Dublin man is just 17 years of age, yet is already around Tottenham squads and is sure to make his first-team bow in the near future. Parrott's been earmarked as a future Ireland star since his days playing at Belvedere, and his performances for Spurs in preseason further validate that claim.

However, you can get excited by more than just the attackers.

In the midfield, Jayson Molumby was nominated for Player of the Tournament whilst captaining the Boys in Green in Toulon. His loan spell at Millwall has slowly been gaining traction, with more and more Lions fans wanting him in the starting XI. Also, Conor Coventry managed a small cameo in West Ham's League Cup tie, with some Hammers fans likening him to club cult hero, Jack Collison.

Also, Bournemouth's Gavin Kilkenny was impressive for the Cherries during pre-season, capping it with a goal in a man-of-the-match performance against Lyon. Both Daniel Mandroiu and Zach Elbouzedi have been standout performers in the League of Ireland this season, with Mandroiu winning the league's Player of the Month award in June.

ireland under 21s

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Derby County's Jason Knight has also benefitting from the arrival of Philip Cocu as the Rams manager. The 18 year-old played the full 90 minutes as Derby drew 1-1 with West Brom on Saturday. In the same game, current Ireland U21 captain Dara O'Shea was left on the bench for West Brom. However, manager Slaven Bilic is a big fan of the centre-half, saying:

Dara is focused, he is ready, he is fit but also, [that is only] one part; the other part is the quality and he is showing the quality. That is why he is with us.

A potential partner for O'Shea at the heart of the Ireland defence is Stoke City's Nathan Collins. Following on from a first-team breakthrough at the end of last season, coupled with interest from the likes of Manchester United in the summer, Collins has become an even bigger part of the Stoke defence. The 18 year-old has even been made captain by manager Nathan Jones for two matches so far this season.

Lee O'Connor also represents a versatile option in the defensive areas for Ireland. The Waterford native was captain of the Ireland U19's at this summer's Euros, and was badly missing in the semi-final against Portugal. However, it remains to be seen how long O'Connor will accept U23s football with Manchester United before looking elsewhere. Also, Darragh Leahy was one of Ireland's most consistent performers at the Toulon Tournament, showcasing his experience of over 50 first-team appearances for Bohemians.

ireland under 21s

There's even talent in the goalkeeping department. Caoimhin Kelleher has found himself around the Liverpool first-team, mostly due to an injury to Alisson Becker. Also, Gavin Bazunu is a 17 year-old with experience beyond his years. He was thrust into the role as first-choice goalkeeper in Tallaght last season when he was just 16. His move to Manchester City is testament to the potential that he undoubtedly has.

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Although this may just seem like a list of players that may be future full Ireland internationals, the sheer abundance of these players is enough to dream of a better tomorrow.

Also, with Stephen Kenny at the helm, the players have one of Ireland's best footballing minds managing them. The Tallaght man has cut his teeth for nearly 20 years in the League of Ireland, culminating with his Dundalk team becoming one of the greatest club sides the League of Ireland has ever seen. Although he may only have a year left as manager of the U21s before taking over the senior side, you can bet that Kenny will have no hesitation in calling up those who excelled under him at this level.

ireland under 21s

Ireland's U21 side has rarely had much joy throughout the years. The closest the age group has come to qualifying for the Euros was a side in 2013 that defeated Italy in the qualifiers, yet still finished in third.

Even if Kenny's Ireland side fail to qualify, there is enough talent to suggest that Ireland's footballing fortunes may be changing. Moreover, a lot of the players mentioned can potentially play in the next U21 Euro qualifying campaign.

There's always a chance that these players never pan out, however with the sheer volume of talent coming through, it's doubtful that all of these lads will falter in their professional careers. Some of the star players in Brian Kerr's great youth sides of the late 90s ended up petering out of football altogether. On the other hand, you had the likes of Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Richard Dunne in those same squads.

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It may have been a complete fluke, but Ireland's footballing future looks an awful lot brighter.

Ireland U21 squad for Euros qualifiers against Armenia and Sweden

Goalkeepers: Caoimhin Kelleher (Liverpool), Gavin Bazunu (Manchester City)

Defenders: Danny McNamara (Newport County, on loan from Millwall), Lee O'Connor (Manchester United), Dara O'Shea (West Bromwich Albion), Conor Masterson (QPR), Darragh Leahy (Bohemians), Nathan Collins (Stoke City), Liam Scales (UCD AFC)

Centre Midfielders: Jayson Molumby (Millwall, on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion), Jason Knight (Derby County), Conor Coventry (West Ham United), Jake Doyle-Hayes (Cheltenham Town, on loan from Aston Villa).

Attacking Midfielders: Jack Taylor (Barnet), Dan Mandroiu (Bohemians), Gavin Kilkenny (AFC Bournemouth), Zack Elbouzedi (Waterford).

Forwards: Adam Idah (Norwich City), Jonathan Afolabi (Celtic), Aaron Connolly (Brighton and Hove Albion), Michael Obafemi (Southampton), Troy Parrott (Tottenham Hotspur).

SEE ALSO: Young Irish Players In The League Cup: Connolly, Obafemi and Barrett All Impress

Sean Meehan

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