By Damian Spellman, PA
Stephen Kenny has urged the Republic of Ireland to embrace their Euro 2024 qualifier with World Cup runners-up France rather than be daunted by it.
Ireland launch their Group B campaign against Didier Deschamps’ men in Dublin on Monday, March 27 knowing they could not have been handed a much more difficult start.
However, a bullish Kenny is confident his remoulded team can compete with even the best and is excited for what lies ahead.
Speaking as he announced a 26-man squad for the qualifier and the friendly against Latvia which precedes it, he said: “When we got the draw initially, we understood the magnitude of it, France, Holland, Greece and Gibraltar in the group.
“We understand the difficulty with that, but it also provides an opportunity, and it’s quite exciting to have France coming here.
“France have been the best team in the world over a period now because they won the World Cup in 2018 and then obviously lost recently on penalties to win consecutive World Cups.
“They’ve been a phenomenal team, so them coming here to Dublin, we view it as an opportunity also. We’ve been building our own team for the last couple of years for this campaign and we’re excited by that.
“We understand that not many neutrals would give us a chance, really, against France because of their pedigree and because of what they’ve achieved, and we’re fine with that.
“But we are capable of putting in a strong performance against anyone, really, we’ve shown that as well.”
Celtic winger Mikey Johnston is included in the squad for the first time since FIFA approved his switch of allegiance from Scotland, who he represented at Under-21 level.
The 23-year-old Glaswegian, who qualifies for Ireland through his Derry-born grandfather, is currently on loan with Portuguese Primeira Liga side Vitoria Guimaraes, where he is trying to rebuild his career after a year out of action with a serious knee injury.
Kenny said: “Mikey is someone I’ve obviously been aware of for a long time. He has different characteristics that will add to the squad, I feel. We mustn’t expect a major impact in this camp, but it’s a good introduction for him.”
Norwich duo Andrew Omobamidele and Adam Idah have been recalled after injury, as have Derby midfielder Jason Knight and Wigan striker Will Keane, although Idah is due to undergo a scan on Friday on a foot problem which forced him off during the Canaries’ 1-1 Sky Bet Championship draw at Huddersfield on Wednesday evening.
Full-back Matt Doherty is included despite playing only 12 minutes of football for Atletico Madrid since his January switch from Tottenham, while there is also a place for 18-year-old striker Evan Ferguson, who has scored four Premier League goals for Brighton since making his senior international debut against Norway in November.
Kenny said: “Evan has been very, very good, and he’s made it look easy at times. He’s come in, and he makes good decisions, he always seems to make good decisions.
“He has a variety of attributes. He leads the line well, and he links the play well, and he has the capacity to score goals, so those are good attributes.”
Squad: Gavin Bazunu (Southampton), Caoimhin Kelleher (Liverpool), Mark Travers, (Bournemouth), Seamus Coleman (Everton), Matt Doherty (Atletico Madrid), Andrew Omobamidele (Norwich), Nathan Collins (Wolves), John Egan (Sheffield United), Dara O’Shea (West Brom), Callum O’Dowda (Cardiff), James McClean (Wigan), Josh Cullen (Burnley), Jayson Molumby (West Brom), Jeff Hendrick (Reading, on loan from Newcastle), Alan Browne (Preston), Jason Knight (Derby), Will Smallbone (Stoke, on loan from Southampton), Jamie McGrath (Dundee United, on loan from Wigan), Mark Sykes (Bristol City), Chiedozie Ogbene (Rotherham), Michael Obafemi (Burnley, on loan from Swansea), Evan Ferguson (Brighton), Adam Idah (Norwich), Troy Parrott (Preston, on loan from Tottenham), Will Keane (Wigan), Mikey Johnston (Vitoria Guimaraes, on loan from Celtic).