IT MAY HAVE been awhile coming but Anthony Pilkington is finally on the brink of making his senior debut for Ireland.
The Blacburn-born winger received his first call-up to Giovanni Trapattoni’s squad after the Italian travelled in person to scout both Pilkington and his Norwich team-mate Wes Hoolahan on several occasions.
12 Premier League goals, including one in the victory over Manchester United (a club he spent a brief period with as a youngster), and a number of excellent displays for the Canaries since their return to the top flight last season mean the 24-year-old’s stock is higher than it has ever been.
Pilkington, whose paternal grandmother is from Dublin, made one appearance for Ireland at U21 level back in 2008. Now, with two crucial World Cup 2014 qualifiers just a month away, he has been handed a chance force his way into Trap’s plans by showing his worth in next Wednesday’s friendly against Poland at the Aviva Stadium.
There were issues about processing his paperwork and reports that he was stalling in the slim hope of being selected for England, but Pilkington recently got his Irish passport and insists his heart is set on making an impact in the green jersey.
“I hoped it would have been a bit sooner but obviously it wasn’t to be,” Pilkington said. “But I’ve been working hard and the manager has seen what I can do this season and hopefully I can prove that to everyone in Ireland if I get a chance on Wednesday.
“There were little bits and pieces in the press but I spoke to anyone from that side. People were saying why hasn’t he declared for one side but I hadn’t spoken either to the FAI or the English set-up. And as soon as Ireland did get in touch, that’s when I made my mind up that I wanted to play for them.
“I’ve got the passport here in my hand now! That’s it now. I made my mind up that I wanted to play for Ireland and that’s what it will be from now on.”
On his Irish heritage, he added: “My dad’s mum and all that side of the family (are from Dublin). Unfortunately, many of them have passed away now but I’m sure they’ll be watching down on us.
We used to get the ferry over, my dad and my grandma would take us over when I was really young. He is really delighted with my call-up. Like myself, he was hoping it would come a bit sooner, maybe with a chance to play in the Euros.
“But that wasn’t to be and to be fair to the manager, he wanted to stick with the lads who’d done really well and got them through. But I’ve got the chance now and we’re really delighted.”
The presence of Hoolahan will surely help Pilkington settle into the camp. The former Shelbourne star was handed a cameo role in the 1-0 loss to Greece at the back end of 2012 but could play from the start this time out.
“He’s real quality,” Pilkington said of his club mate. ” Some of the things he does with the ball and some of the situations he gets out of, his passing and dribbling – he’s a really good player.
“The Norwich fans call him ‘Wessi’ down here, like Messi. He may not get as many goals but he plays in the pocket and he’s really dangerous there and creates so many goals for the team. I can’t speak highly enough of him – he’s probably the best player I’ve played with up to now.”
His manager Chris Hughton, an ex-Ireland international and assistant boss during the Brian Kerr era, also had a part to play in helping him decide that declaring for Ireland was the right option.
“He said it would be a good move and he talked to me a little bit about the country and about the fans and the set-up. And he congratulated me as soon as I got the news.”
Having made a name for himself at Stockport County, Pilkington joined Huddersfield Town in 2009 and was in the middle of a successful spell with the Terriers when he suffered a dislocated ankle and broken fibula. Although he feared the worst, then Norwich manager Paul Lambert took a gamble by signing him while he was still undergoing rehabilitation on the injury.
Thankfully, it paid off as he returned to full fitness and was handed a competitive debut away to Wigan at the start of the 2011/12 campaign. He hasn’t looked back since and is likely to take international football in his stride.
Right from the start of my career I’ve always tried to better myself, every year, so hopefully the international scene is another step I can succeed at.
“I’m just looking forward to getting in, meeting the boys and getting settled in, meeting the staff and seeing how the whole set-up works. And if I do get to play or come on against Poland, it would be great. I can’t wait.
“I think we’ve got a great chance (of qualifying for the World Cup),” he adds. “We’ve got a really good squad with new faces coming in, the likes of Wes who’ll make any team better when he plays. And there’s some really good young players as well as the experienced lads in there.
“So I think we’ve got the kind of squad than can challenge and hopefully we can put the performances in that will see us over the line.”
Anthony is expected to feature for the Republic of Ireland in the ‘Three International Friendly’ against Poland next Wednesday, Feb 6 at 7.45 in Aviva Stadium. For more information, or to purchase tickets, please go to www.fai.ie.