Many heavyweight footballers, including Zbigniew Boniek, have enjoyed a stopover in Lodz, but new boxing convert James McClean plans to deliver a blow to Ukraine in the Polish city tonight.
Boniek made a name for himself at Widzew Lodz before Juventus called in 1982 and the footballing tradition it spawned is reflected in the pair of spanking stadiums in a city which, until next season, n hadn’t had a top club for years.
The most recent of the arenas built, the LKS, is where Ukraine and Ireland were forced to reorient following the brutal onslaught perpetrated by Russia. The original location of Kyiv was changed from Lviv and eventually across the border to Poland.
It puts football in perspective but Stephen Kenny and McClean are focused on football for now. If no one anticipated Armenia’s mission over Ireland last Saturday, the number of Kenny crews inflicted on Scotland seven days later was equally unexpected.
Landing in between was the most predictable result of Ukraine beating Ireland 1-0 in Dublin, albeit a makeshift side necessitated by the rotation.
Tonight Ukraine play their fifth and final match since their first competitive game in seven months – the World Cup semi-final victory in Scotland. Kenny never misses an opportunity to bemoan the demands of cluttered windows, but there has been so much talk about the advantage they gain from the extra workload of their opponents.
There’s also the bug that has spread through the Ukrainian side, already affecting a handful of players, some of whom won’t recover in time for tonight. Roman Yaremchuk is also sidelined; the absence of the Benfica star through injury at least making up for the loss through suspension of Shane Duffy’s power and set-piece prowess.
One of his central defense partners, John Egan, is also unavailable due to the imminent arrival of his newborn baby, leaving Nathan Collins as the sole survivor of the three-pronged unit from the previous three games of the window.
Kenny is unlikely to leave the altered system that stopped the rot against the Scots, providing opportunities for at least two newcomers alongside Collins. Darragh Lenihan, a regular campaigner who was unlucky to be ousted by the flotilla of arrivals to this region, seems certain to claim one, with the other potentially delegated to Enda Stevens. Classically left-back or full-back, he still retains the trickery of moving inside to get a job done.
Jayson Molumby’s performance on Saturday should keep him in midfield alongside the enduring Josh Cullen, emphasizing attack. Chiedozie Ogbene is back in the frame after missing Saturday with an impact injury – thankfully not hamstring-related – and his participation could depend on the well-being of Michael Obafemi.
The striker’s spectacular contribution in his first start – a goal and an assist – ensured his continuity in the team, but groin problems kept him out of training from yesterday, or at least from the filmed section of the beginning.
Kenny threw more models than Mothercare during this window, rendering his statement about Obafemi’s unavailability moot. Gavin Bazunu went on trial on the eve of the game against Armenia, only to be sent off the next day – the opposite scenario applied to Egan for the game against Scotland.
“Compared to Michael,” Kenny later said during his press conference. “It’s not a case of telling the opposition manager who’s fit and who’s not. I’d say he came out injured on Sunday and that’s too quick a turnaround. Anyone following the case injury the striker would be convinced that the threat of worsening groin disease makes him a non-runner.
No fitness worries for McClean, the 33-year-old committed absentee. Initially excluded from this appointment with a knee injury, he insisted on zipping through WhatApp Kenny’s videos of his crusade to rehabilitate. The diet comes with a health warning, according to his manager, although it served him well to produce one of his best displays in an Irish shirt this weekend.
McClean has done his best to play down his chances of taking the armband – joking that Chief Dave Steele was the likeliest recipient – but he’s the favorite to do so on his 94th cap.
“I started boxing which became a passion of mine,” the Wigan player confessed of his after-school conditioning job.
“I love working out in the gym and it’s also my release from any pressures or frustrations I have.
“I would train all day if my wife let me, but I have three children.
“Training has done me good throughout my career and I don’t think it’s worth changing now.”
Saying it directly is another McClean constant. Any notions his young teammates had of the Kenny era going from stability to soaring were put on the back burner in Yerevan.
“Those little setbacks can sometimes be a good thing,” he noted.
“It’s nice when you’re doing well and getting a pat on the back and being told you’re brilliant. But you need that little reality check. We probably came in hoping to earn our two first games and we didn’t.
“We have to show up and perform to deserve every win, which we did on Saturday by bouncing back quite well.”
Maintaining this rebound in neutral territory is essential to avoid a return to deflation.