Stephen Kenny says Mark Sykes deserves his Ireland call-up

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny named his 25-man squad for friendlies against Belgium and Lithuania

STEPHEN Kenny cited Mark Sykes’s “passion and desire” to play for the Republic of Ireland and his brilliant run of form with Oxford United as reasons for the Belfast man’s first-ever call-up.

The former Northern Ireland U21 player, who declared for the south in August 2020, has had to wait patiently to be named in Stephen Kenny’s senior squad.

Sykes received a phone-call from his international manager earlier this week while in his car with Oxford team-mate and Northern Ireland international Gavin Whyte.

“Gavin was in the car with me so he was listening to the full conversation,” Sykes told the Oxford Mail.

“It’s relief more than anything and I’m just proud as well.

“My decision in the first place [was] the ability to back myself in a tough situation, so it’s more about proving myself right than proving everyone else wrong.”

Sykes will be hoping for some game-time in next week’s pair of friendlies against Belgium and Lithuania in Dublin as Kenny’s side prepares for this summer’s UEFA Nations League campaign.

Sykes is one of seven midfielders named in a 25-man squad that includes Conor Hourihane, Josh Cullen, Jeff Hendrick, Jayson Molumby, Alan Browne and Jason Knight.

“When Mark switched to us, there were no promises made that he’d be selected – absolutely none,” said Kenny at yesterday’s press conference in Abbotstown.

“He is in the squad due to a sustained period of consistent play over a long period. He’s caught the eye this season by being very creative, dynamic and quick. He shows a degree of speed and speed of thought.

“He wasn’t promised anything and has earned it with his body of work.

“It’s terrific that he wants to play for Ireland and feels such passion and desire to play for Ireland. That’s what we want. We’ve seen it with Shane Duffy, James McClean and Ronan Curtis.”

The Ireland manager added: “He's adaptable, he can play wide or central, he's adapted between the two. In recent weeks, he's actually played wing-back a good bit for Oxford because that was the need of the team, but we see him playing further up the pitch.”

St Mirren striker Connor Ronan (24) also received his first senior call-up after performing well under Kenny at U21 level, while WBA defender Dara O’Shea returns to the fold for the first time since fracturing his ankle in last September’s 2-1 defeat in Portugal.

Scott Hogan has earned a recall too, with Kenny particularly impressed with his fitness levels at Birmingham City this season.

“When Birmingham were playing last year he was playing in a low press and block, trying to counter-attack and he sometimes got minimal touches in games.

“I think that he's in physically much better condition this season. They are playing a high press and the demands of how Lee Bowyer has set them up means that they have been to be exceptionally fit to play. He's a different type of player than what we have.”

Swansea City striker Michael Obafemi, who won his first international cap under Martin O’Neill, declined a call-up.

“Michael is ambitious and I think the best is still to come from him and he’s shown potential in the last few weeks, maybe more so because he’s been able to get consecutive games.”

Kenny acknowledged: “There was speculation about whether he would want to be part of Ireland in the future; the speculation regarding Nigeria, but he was on the phone the other night to me and he said: ‘Stephen, I really want to play for Ireland. It’s important to me but I just have to get myself right. It’s the first time I’ve had a run of games.’ That’s the way he feels.”

Republic of Ireland’s 25-man squad to play Belgium (Dublin, Saturday (5pm), March 26) and Lithuania (Tuesday (7.45pm) March 29):

Goalkeepers: Caoimhin Kelleher (Liverpool), Gavin Bazunu (Portsmouth, on loan from Manchester City), Mark Travers (AFC Bournemouth)

Defenders: Seamus Coleman (Everton), Matt Doherty (Tottenham Hotspur), Ryan Manning (Swansea City), James McClean (Wigan Athletic), Shane Duffy (Brighton & Hove Albion), John Egan (Sheffield United), Nathan Collins (Burnley), Dara O'Shea (West Bromwich Albion), Darragh Lenihan (Blackburn Rovers).

Midfielders: Conor Hourihane (Sheffield United, on loan from Aston Villa), Josh Cullen (Anderlecht), Jeff Hendrick (QPR, on loan from Newcastle United), Jayson Molumby (West Bromwich Albion, on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion), Alan Browne (Preston North End), Jason Knight (Derby County), Mark Sykes (Oxford United).

Forwards: Callum Robinson (West Bromwich Albion), Troy Parrott (MK Dons, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur), Will Keane (Wigan Athletic), Scott Hogan (Birmingham City), Chiedozie Ogbene (Rotherham United), Connor Ronan (St. Mirren, on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers).

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