Ireland under-21 Will Smallbone: 'We feel like we are very close, we just want to make sure we get it over the line now'Tue, Oct 13 2020
Before ‘socially-distant’ became a mainstay in our everyday vocabulary, Will Smallbone sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Shane Long on match days in the Southampton dressing room.
“He’s been helping me move into the first team”, Smallbone says, chatting about his relationship with the Tipperary man. “When I come away with Ireland, he's been great to help me and give me little bits of advice.
“He's had a fantastic career for Ireland”, he adds.
Smallbone is on the brink of his first cap with the Ireland under-21s, who face Italy in a European Championship qualifier tomorrow in Pisa.
He has a way to go before reaching the 80-odd appearances amassed by his teammate Long, but that doesn’t deter him.
“The aim is to break into the senior squad and to get as many caps as I can”, Smallbone says.
To talk only of his future would be a disservice to Smallbone. Now a regular in the Southampton first team, the midfielder has enjoyed a remarkable rise at the club he’s been at since the age of eight.
“To break into the first team was a very special moment for me, and it was something that I'd always dreamed of growing up through the academy.
“Everyone's helped me at Southampton to go and play well. But the experience, to play against players that I've always grown up dreaming of playing in the Premier League, and then to be there and play against them, is fantastic.”
Playing against Manchester United was a particular highlight: “Coming to Old Trafford for me was massive… It's a team that you always watch growing up.
“If you think of the Premier League, all the moments that have happened, especially at Old Trafford, it's special to come on there and play there.”
Equipped with a new four-year contract with the Saints, Smallbone’s mid-term future is secure on the south coast.
He always knew he was capable of reaching the summit of the game, but even for him, the past year has been a whirlwind.
“I've always been confident in my ability, but I suppose last season it came along a bit quicker than I expected.”
Looking to tomorrow’s clash, Smallbone believes his experience in the Premier League “can only help” him when he pulls on the green shirt.
Restrictions-permitting, the under-21s will take a massive step towards qualification for the European Championships if they can get a result tomorrow in Pisa.
Smallbone knows how significant appearing at the finals would be: “It would mean a lot, to be the first Irish 21s side to qualify for a European finals would be incredible.
“I'd love to be a part of that and go to the finals in the summer”, he adds.
The match tomorrow presents an opportunity. It must be seized, according to Smallbone.
“We feel like we are very close, we just want to make sure we get it over the line now.”