In the latest entry of Kenny’s Kids‘ series on exciting young Irish footballers, he turns his attention to Southampton’s attacking midfielder Will Smallbone.
Will Smallbone began playing for Southampton at just eight years old.
He qualifies for Ireland through his mother Mary, but his late father Tony introduced Will to the beautiful game, and – as is often the case – Tony’s love for the Saints was inherited by Will at an early age.
Will was scouted while playing for a local grassroots club in Basingstoke called Berg FC.
Fast forward to 2016, and a 16-year-old Will Smallbone is making his U23 debut in the EFL Trophy against League Two side Crawley Town.
Signing a professional contract on his 17th birthday, he soon after scored the U18 Goal of the Season at Old Trafford in the FA Youth Cup. Later in the year, this was followed up with another fantastic goal against Man City U18s.
His progression to the U23s was carefully managed, making just four appearances in the 2017/18 along with 22 appearances for the U18s. It was the 2018/19 season that things really started to accelerate.
Smallbone scored five goals and assisted a further four in 22 appearances for the U23s, earning him a spot on the shortlist for Premier League 2 Player of the Season.
The present season marked a dream debut for the Southampton playmaker, scoring in the FA Cup 3rd round against Huddersfield Town. That dream start continued into the Premier League where he was voted man of the match by Southampton fans on his debut against Aston Villa.
The young attacking midfielder models his play off the great Andrés Iniesta who, like Smallbone, excels in ball control, vision, technical ability and precision passing.
Southampton Manager Ralph Hassenhuttl expanded on this back in February after the Aston Villa performance:
“He has a lot of things that really help a team, being good on the ball, covering a lot of distance, but also to work against the ball and win balls, this is very important. And what I also like is his mindset because he learns very quick. He’s smart and it’s a very good combination.”
Many will be scratching their heads upon hearing there’s an Irish-eligible, English-born, 20-year-old midfielder playing in the Premier League who has only been capped to U19 level for Ireland.
That said, he did miss much of 2019 through injury which hampered his progression to the U21s. It’s a competitive outfit to break into with the likes of Conor Coventry, Jayson Molumby, Jason Knight and Gavin Kilkenny competing for similar positions on the pitch.
Putting aside the obvious concern over whether we can tie him down before an approach from Gareth Southgate’s England, Smallbone’s performances at club-level makes him a shoe-in for the U21s, if not the senior squad itself.