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Smallbone: Massive dream to make it at international level

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Will Smallbone

Will Smallbone

SPORTSFILE

Will Smallbone

It was played behind closed doors and it was 'only' a friendly against lower-tier opposition so it's hard to read too much into it.

But the fact that Ireland U-19 cap Will Smallbone claimed an assist for a goal scored by Southampton in a game played as part of the warm-up for the restart of the Premier League is, hopefully, a sign that the 20-year-old is very much in the thoughts of the club.

Smallbone's future at club level is about as secure as can be, having signed a new four-year contract last week with the Saints, a club who have a very good track record for producing players, either for their own first team or for future sales with a big price tag.

And as Stephen Kenny this week at last has the opportunity to scout out talent for the senior Ireland squad which he will select in September, Smallbone says his hopes are to follow club-mates Shane Long and Michael Obafemi into the senior Irish squad.

"It's a massive dream of mine to go on and become a full international. To have people like Michael and Shane in the team who have both played for Ireland is really helpful," Smallbone told the Southampton Daily Echo.

"Longy's been there ages and to have him next to me in the dressing room is great because it means I can learn off him. He's a good guy and he's been helping me through the games to keep me calm so that I can show what I'm capable of."

Smallbone, who joined Southampton at the age of eight, giving a mention to Ireland in an interview with the local newspaper is something of a relief due to his background and the contentious battleground for talent that is international football.

Ireland have lost English-born talents Declan Rice and Jack Grealish to the FA after they made inroads in the Premier League as teenagers.

And as with any young player who is born in England, the chance of Gareth Southgate casting a glance his way is always a danger, so Smallbone's admission of an ambition to join Long in the green shirt is welcome, the midfielder showing his potential with that assist in a friendly win over Bristol City last week.

Smallbone was a day past his 20th birthday when he made his Premier League debut for the Saints back in March, though he had already made people sit up and take note by scoring on his debut, an FA Cup win over Huddersfield in January.

He has been in the Ireland set-up since 2017, capped for the first time at U-18 level in the same squad as other Premier League hopefuls Gavin Kilkenny (Bournemouth) and Adam Idah (Norwich). Those two were born in Ireland, while Smallbone qualifies through his Kilkenny-born mother.

But his link with this country is strong and while his initial focus was on making the U-21 squad for the first time (current U-21 boss Jim Crawford was the U-18 manager who capped him back in 2017), a run in the Saints side over the next month could propel Smallbone into a big name.

"Will is a young man who is part of the future of this football club. He has made some big steps this season, and he is someone who has a lot of potential to continue to grow as a player," manager Ralf Hassenhuttl said after the player signed his new deal last week.

Ireland boss Kenny is now hoping to see Smallbone on the field, possibly even this Friday when the Saints visit Norwich.