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Friday 20 September 2019

Green shoots could take time to blossom

Obafemi and Connolly goals give hope but too early to call time on Shane Long's Ireland career

Michael Obafemi celebrates scoring against Fulham, but he is yet to play 90 minutes for Southampton
Michael Obafemi celebrates scoring against Fulham, but he is yet to play 90 minutes for Southampton

Some green shoots from a patch of land which had become barren, at last.

The scene earlier this week of three Irish players, all strikers and still in their teens, playing for English Premier League club first teams, was, when viewed through green-tinted lenses, a sight for sore eyes.

For the final years of his reign as Ireland manager, Martin O'Neill never wasted an opportunity to remind everyone, as if a reminder was needed or relevant, that the Irish game was still struggling to fill the goal-scoring boots of Robbie Keane.

So can Irish football relax and sit back for another free-scoring era, now that Aaron Connolly (Brighton) and Michael Obafemi (Southampton) have netted goals this week, in the same week that Cork lad Adam Idah made his debut for Norwich?

With other talented forwards like Troy Parrott (Spurs) and Michael Afolabi (Celtic) taking their steps on the ladder at their clubs, this has the appearance, at least, of a new dawn for Irish strikers.

Timing is everything in football and, for Shane Long, the timing of events this week was awful. On Tuesday night, Long (32) watched from the bench as compatriot Obafemi (19) was picked to start for Southampton, Obafemi with the goal that won the game for the Saints away to Fulham.

Reduced

On Thursday morning, Long was cut from the Ireland squad when Mick McCarthy reduced his provisional 40-man panel down to a 25-strong travelling party, a lack of game time hurting Long as McCarthy tries to come up with a plan to outwit Switzerland in Dublin next week.

McCarthy, who also left out Robbie Brady and Harry Arter due to injury or lack of fitness, has made calls like this before. In his the first year of his first spell as Ireland manager, he made a very big one during a World Cup tie at home to Iceland. With the game ebbing away from Ireland towards a dismal 0-0 draw, McCarthy looked to his bench, ignored goal-machine Aldridge and called on Alan Moore.

Aldridge took that as a snub and retired from international football on the spot.

There is no suggestion that Long (32) will do the same. Like James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan, he has some unfinished business with international football after a couple of difficult years for the side.

Long is also a veteran of almost 15 years in English football and he knows that green shoots, in terms of young Irish talent, don't always achieve adulthood, so Ireland can't forget Long and he can't forget Ireland.

But the midweek action shows that, for the first time in perhaps two decades, Ireland have strong-looking options up front at underage level.

Of the five strikers named in the U21 squad for the Euro qualifiers against Armenia and Sweden, four come from the Premier League in England, the other (Jonathan Afolabi) from the SPL, from Celtic.

All five of the U21 strikers were born in Ireland, though Michael Obafemi is something of an outlier as he was born in Dublin but moved to England before his first birthday, so he was not raised in the Irish football system.

But the other four were raised here, schooled by the domestic system.

Idah's crucial years were with Cork club College Corinthians; Connolly's skills were honed in Galway by Mervue United; Troy Parrott (Belvedere) and Jonathan Afolabi (St Joseph's Boys and Shamrock Rovers) were taught in Dublin.

Striking

Contrast that with the strikers in McCarthy's senior squad: of that striking quartet, only one (Sean Maguire) was produced by our domestic system, the others (Scott Hogan, David McGoldrick and Callum Robinson) born and raised in England.

Robinson played for England at youth and U21 level, so all three were relatively late converts to international football.

So the sight of Idah, Connolly and Obafemi playing in midweek gladdens the heart of an Ireland supporter.

But, given that Irish football has struggled for so long to find free-scoring strikers, it's easy to make too much out of a small moment.

Along with the smile that comes from the sight of Irish strikers lining out for Premier League clubs, and scoring in the case of Obafemi, there is caution.

Obafemi (19) has yet to play 90 minutes for his club and in midweek the striker had to come off with 15 minutes to go.

"He was not injured, but he is a young guy who must develop his game," said his club boss Ralf Hassenhuttl.

Idah is expected to drop back to the Norwich U23 side, and Parrott and Afolabi still await the first-team call at their clubs, so it could be up to the midweek scorers, Obafemi and Connolly, to try and stay in the frame, pressure on all sides - a test for their young shoulders.

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