Soccer

Injury and alopecia have made Will Smallbone a more resilient character

Republic of Ireland's Will Smallbone won man-of-the-match on his debut against Latvia
Republic of Ireland's Will Smallbone won man-of-the-match on his debut against Latvia Republic of Ireland's Will Smallbone won man-of-the-match on his debut against Latvia

IT’S not the way he would have planned his career – but serious injury and alopecia have combined to make Will Smallbone a stronger character.

The Republic of Ireland rookie made international football look easy as he walked away with the man-of-the-match award on his senior debut against Latvia in March.

An unused substitute against France a few days later, the Southampton midfielder is looking to add to his first cap in next Friday’s Euro 2024 qualifier against Greece in Athens.

Smallbone, who came through the youth ranks at Southampton, suffered a cruciate ligament injury in January 2021 and it was during his time out of the game when he developed radical hair loss.

Although there was no definite link between the stress that comes with being out of the game with injury and suffering alopecia, he says the “timings line up”.

The 23-year-old battled back to full fitness and was a key player for Stoke City during a season-long loan move – to the point where he graduated to Ireland’s senior international team.

Speaking from Ireland’s training base in Anatalya, Turkey, Smallbone said: “The stuff that’s happened to me over the last few years I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. I’ve shown resilience and a lot of character to know that I can take on anything that is thrown at me.”

Born in Basingstoke, he qualified to play for Ireland through his Kilkenny-born mother. He’s played from U18 through to the senior ranks at international level.

“It has always been a dream of mine to get through to the senior international stage and to have that match in March was fantastic for me,” he said. “I feel ready now to push on and hopefully play a big part in the campaign."

Both Ireland and Greece have played just one game each in their Euro 2024 qualifying group with the Irish going down 1-0 to favourites France and the Greeks easing to a 3-0 win over minnows Gibraltar.

Smallbone’s last competitive fixture was a 1-0 home defeat to QPR on April 29 – but the midfielder doesn’t envisage physical fitness being a problem for the Irish team as they move from Turkey to Athens next Wednesday.

“It's such a long break for us from the end of the Championship season to the game, but the lads here with Ireland have been fantastic with us, giving us plans to go away over the start of the off-season and then we had the camp in Bristol, which I thought was very beneficial for me and for everyone else to get back up to speed.

“It's quite rare to get such a long period of time before a game so this week in Turkey will put us in good stead going into the game in Greece.

“We have a lot of people coming in from different clubs and it's important that we all get back to understanding each other and training with each other. This 10 or 11 days will be fantastic for that.”