UEFA Nations League Group B1: Ukraine v Republic of Ireland (tonight Lodz, 7.45pm)
It doesn’t seem like a decade ago that James McClean burst onto the international scene with the kind of fearlessness that earned him a place in Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland squad bound for the Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine.
Speaking in Lodz, a city deep in the heart of Poland, ahead of tonight’s Nations League tie with Ukraine, the Derry man is now in the final stages of his career and is looking at the wealthy potential of the youth flowing through the 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, accompanied by his manager Stephen Kenny at last night’s pre-match press conference.
“Obviously they show the ability and the potential they have. The more experience you get at that level, the more their ability will be improved.
“I think the future is bright, which is obviously a good thing, and I think you saw that last Saturday. [against Scotland] – Nathan Collins at fullback, the change Jay Molumby put in in the middle of the park, and if you look at second and third base you can see what Troy and Michael can do.
“It’s obviously very nice. It’s just nice to be here and see this day in and day out and potentially see what they could become.
Kelleher, Collins, Molumby, Parrott and Obafemi all excelled in Ireland’s 3-0 win over the Scots in Dublin last weekend – the team’s first-ever Nations League success and without any arguably Kenny’s finest hour in his two-year reign.
McClean also reclaimed a starting spot in Kenny’s line-up as a left-back after Enda Stevens’ indifferent form in last Wednesday’s 1-0 home loss to Ukraine.
Oleksandr Petrakov has made some big changes for the Dublin clash following their devastating World Cup final loss to Wales in Cardiff three days earlier. But Ukraine’s second channel still managed to beat the Irish.
The Ukraine boss fielded a more familiar and solid line-up on Saturday that overcame Armenia 3-0, also staged in neutral Lodz due to the ongoing war in their home country, so the Ireland can expect to face a better version of the Ukrainians than they did six days ago.
And if pre-match press conference tradition is anything to go by, McClean is likely to earn his 94th cap and be named captain for the night as Seamus Coleman (injured) and Shane Duffy (suspended) are both absent.
“I wasn’t told that, I don’t know. It depends on the manager, obviously.”
After a smiling Kenny seated next to him snapped, “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 tonight’s clash with a groin injury but Chiedozie Ogbene trained at the 18,000 capacity LSK Stadium last night.
Meanwhile, Vitaliy Mykolenko has admitted that the war between Russia and Ukraine has made him put life in perspective.
The Everton defender is set to start for Lodz tonight, Ukraine’s fourth game in 11 days.
Mykolenko said: “I feel really good now. If the team played in Ukraine, it would be much better.
“Before the war I thought my problems were the biggest ones and now I realize they are small problems.”
Mykolenko, who joined the Toffees from Dynamo Kyiv in January, is in regular contact with his family back home and it’s a source of relief that they are safe now.
“My parents stay in Kyiv now and we keep in touch with them. My friends and family are in different parts of the country and we try to keep in touch with them, but it’s not always possible. Thank God they are safe now.
Mykolenko also paid tribute to teammate Seamus Coleman since joining Everton earlier this year.
“I will tell a brief history. On December 31, I met this person on the first day of the training.
“New Year’s Eve is a very big holiday for all Ukrainians. I was alone in the hotel and he wrote me a message: “I will always be there for you and if you need help, write to me and I will be there”.
“During these five months he has always helped me and been there for me. He is a great person and a great captain.”