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18th Oct 2018

Conán Doherty: The thing about Callum Robinson

Conan Doherty

Callum Robinson

There were only about a hundred seconds on the clock at Lansdowne Road when something was so obviously out of place.

A young Preston attacker making just his third appearance in international football pulled out, back to goal, actually looking for the ball.

And it wasn’t just lip service either, or a half-hearted obligatory show of intent, this was someone who was genuinely asking for possession.

It takes Shane Duffy aback at first.

Out of nowhere, no pre-warning or even a hint, someone has taken up a positive position he hasn’t seen in a while. Suddenly, for once, he doesn’t have nine outfielders showing him the back of their heads. And he might not, after all, have to resort to lumping the thing high and diagonally this time.

It’s like he glances at Callum Robinson a second and then a third time, just to make sure that this is for real, that his eyes aren’t deceiving him. And just to check that he’s actually doing what Duffy thinks he’s doing; that he’s actually looking for the ball, that he’s not coming towards him only to roll and run in the hope that a centre half can drop it perfectly into that exact spot behind the defence from 60 yards away – the one over the top and between the full back and centre back, with just enough on it to get away from the defence but not too much that the ‘keeper will rush out and intercept and, crucially, not hit it too high that it won’t come down for the striker on time.

But, like, at the same time, obviously hit it high enough to get over the entire midfield and backline.

Robinson isn’t running away though, he wants it now so it’s drilled to his feet in the final third, men around him, and he makes it look so easy. He just turns as he receives it. He just turns like every kid is taught by a half decent underage coach and, when he turns on the ball, head up, he immediately takes up the position of power rather than allowing a defender to stick to his backside, push him around and force him back to where it came from. Back to Duffy. Who then has no choice but to hit it long. Then we lose the ball again.

Robinson turns and now he can see everything, he can pass anywhere and he can run. And all it takes is a couple of touches, a couple of steps to make the defender retreat and bring the rest forward. He rides another challenge, seeing that the space is in front and, when he comes under too much pressure, he switches the play to Doherty all alone on the right, having drawn three men to him at once.

Ireland fans are on their feet. It doesn’t take much to get them going but they aren’t often given much to get going.

Here was Robinson, playing his third game since he declared last month through his granny in Monaghan, showing how easy it can be sometimes for decent footballers.

And, before 9.15pm on Saturday night, no-one really cared that much about him as an Irish international. Well, if they did, they did a damn good job of concealing their excitement.

He wasn’t good out in Cardiff, who was? But he got 25 minutes against Denmark and scared them. So he was back on the 11 and even though he was inevitably only given an hour – when all the evidence before O’Neill suggested that he was Ireland’s best way to goal against Wales – he showed with his second international start that playing a weakened Wales team devoid of their three best players from the 4-1 win is not a step up from club football.

He was given 60 minutes and it was enough for him to bring the Lansdowne mob to boos when the manager decided to take him off with Ireland a goal down and Robinson the only creative spark.

Robinson was a prospect at Villa and he’s doing well at Preston at 23, scoring goals this season, but of all the players we’ve courted over the years, in the stands and in press conferences, he was never one of them.

How many more players are out there like Callun Robinson?

How many more are good enough but, until they show up in the Premier League or on England’s radar, the Irish setup won’t deem them worthy of taking the step down to play B grade international football?

Stephen Kenny was mocked for talking about Richie Towell and Patrick McEleney in these terms, players we’ve seen do wonderful things with a football. If Wales were that snobby about their selections, Ethan Ampadu, the Chelsea underage resident, would never have ripped us apart.

In theory, Martin O’Neill talks down the talent it requires to play for his Ireland team. He says they’re lacking technical ability and he has no qualms about accepting our place in world football.

In practice, he runs one of the most elitist selection policies in the international game. A place where Declan Rice can’t make the bench for a Moldova match – five months after his Premier League debut – but two goalkeepers can.

Alan Browne, the current Preston player of the year, watched Cyrus Christie play 180 minutes ahead of him at central midfield whilst Hourihane, Villa’s set piece master, kept him company.

It obviously takes more for these boys to earn their chances and prove they’re ahead of Christie as midfielders but they weren’t being asked to outplay Spain, they would’ve had to just contend with Matthew Smith, Harry Wilson, Tom Lawrence, Joe Allen and David Brooks.

That was the Welsh midfield and O’Neill gets away with suggesting Ireland are the ones who have to accept their fate.

Then someone like Robinson comes along and he shows that there’s really not that much to it. Not if you can play some football. Not against Wales anyway.

Unfortunately, in this regime, you’ll only be hauled off after an hour for doing just that.

But at least, that way, you can get a jump on everyone else to Google the name Harry Wilson.

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