Football/Soccer

Ireland veteran James McClean excited by youth potential ahead of Ukraine tie

James McClean has been hugely impressed with the younger members of the squad, including Troy Parrott (right)

UEFA Nations League Group B1: Ukraine v Republic of Ireland (tonight, Lodz, 7.45pm)

IT doesn’t seem a decade ago James McClean burst onto the international scene with the kind of fearlessness that won him a place in Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland squad bound for Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine.

Speaking in Lodz, a city buried deep in the heart of Poland, ahead of tonight’s Nations League tie with Ukraine, the Derry man is now in the latter stages of his career looking on at the rich potential of the youth coming through Irish ranks.

With the likes of Gavin Bazunu, Caoimhin Kelleher, Nathan Collins, Andrew Omobamidele, Jayson Molumby, Troy Parrott, Adam Idah and Michael Obafemi now where he was around 10 years ago, McClean feels the future is green.

“It's very exciting,” said the Wigan Athletic player, flanked by his manager Stephen Kenny at last night’s pre-match press conference.

“Obviously they are showing the ability and potential that they have. The more experience you get at this level, the more their ability will be enhanced.

“I think the future is bright, which is obviously a nice thing, and I think you saw it last Saturday [against Scotland] - Nathan Collins at the back, the shift Jay Molumby put in in the middle of the park, and if you look at the second and third goals, you can see what Troy and Michael can do.

“It is obviously very pleasing. It is just nice to be here and see that day in day out and see potentially what they could go on to be.”

Kelleher, Collins, Molumby, Parrott and Obafemi all excelled in Ireland’s comprehensive 3-0 win over the Scots in Dublin last weekend – the side’s first-ever success in the Nations League and undoubtedly Kenny’s finest hour in his two-year reign.

McClean also won back a starting slot in Kenny’s line-up as a left wing-back following the indifferent form of Enda Stevens in last Wednesday’s 1-0 home loss to Ukraine.

Oleksandr Petrakov made wholesale changes for the Dublin clash after their devastating World Cup play-off final defeat to Wales in Cardiff three days earlier. But Ukraine’s second string still managed to beat the Irish.

The Ukraine boss fielded a more familiar and stronger looking line-up on Saturday that eased past Armenia 3-0, also staged in neutral Lodz because of the ongoing war in their homeland, so Ireland can expect to face a better version of the Ukrainians than six days ago.

And if pre-match press conference tradition is anything to go by, McClean is likely to win his 94th cap and be named captain for the night as Seamus Coleman (injured) and Shane Duffy (suspended) are both absent.

“I have not been told that, I don't know. That's up to the manager, obviously."

After a smiling Kenny sitting beside him interjected: "Absolutely no chance", McClean joked: "I think the chef will get it before I get it!”

Saturday’s man of the moment, Obafemi will miss this evening’s clash due to a groin injury but Chiedozie Ogbene trained at the 18,000-capacity LSK Stadium last night.

Meanwhile, Vitaliy Mykolenko has admitted the war between Russia and Ukraine has made him put life in sharper perspective.

The Everton defender is expected to start in Lodz tonight, Ukraine’s fourth game in 11 days.

Mykolenko said: “I am feeling really good now. If the team was playing in Ukraine, it would be much better.

“Before the war, I thought that my problems were the biggest and now I realise they are small problems.”

Mykolenko, who joined the Toffees from Dynamo Kyiv in January, is in regular contact with his family back at home and it is a source of relief that they are currently safe.

“My parents stay in Kyiv now and we keep in touch with them. My friends and relatives are in different places in the country and we try to keep in touch with them, but it is not always possible. Thank God they are safe now.”

Mykolenko also paid tribute to club-mate Seamus Coleman since joining Everton at the turn of the year.

“I will tell a short history. On December 31, I met this person on the first day of training.

“New Year's Eve is for all Ukrainians a really great celebration. I was alone in the hotel and he wrote to me a message: ‘I will always be there for you and if you need some help, just write me and I will be there’.

“For this whole five months, he has always helped me and was there for me. He is a great person and a great captain.”

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Football/Soccer