Manager Stephen Kenny and team-mate John Egan have leapt to the defence of “vilified” Republic of Ireland striker Callum Robinson following his admission that he has not been vaccinated against Covid-19.
The 26-year-old West Brom frontman revealed during the build-up to Saturday evening’s World Cup qualifier in Azerbaijan that he has decided for now not to have the jab despite twice contracting the virus, and he has since endured a tide of criticism.
Kenny, who has been double-vaccinated and has urged his staff and players to follow suit, has nevertheless defended the right of players to choose and stood by Robinson despite seeing his plans repeatedly disrupted by positive tests in the last 12 months.
He said: “What I can say about Callum Robinson is that he’s such a popular member of the squad. He’s a breath of fresh air.
“He always comes in with a smile on his face, he’s infectious, he brings laughter to the dressing room, people love him. He has great qualities as a man, great qualities as a human being.
“He has attracted a lot of criticism because he just came into a press conference and where the vast majority of players refuse to answer the questions, he was open and transparent and he has been vilified for it.
“But he is a terrific person and I think all of the players would verify that. They really speak so well of him and he’s a very, very popular member of the squad.”
Sheffield United defender Egan too admitted he did not necessarily agree with his team-mate, but also backed his right to choose.
Egan said: “I suppose first and foremost, Cal was asked a question, he gave an answer. He didn’t come out and say he was against the vaccination or anything, so I was quite disappointed to see how many people jumped down his throat.
“Everybody can choose whether to get the vaccination or not; it’s a personal choice. As a team-mate and as a friend, I back my team-mates, I back my friends.
“It doesn’t mean that I believe the same way, it doesn’t mean that everybody is going to believe the same way.”
The comments came as Kenny revealed that striker Adam Idah and midfielder Jason Knight had been unwell following the squad’s arrival in Baku on Wednesday, but have both returned negative tests.
He said: “They’re both fine. We don’t know whether they’re strong enough to play – we’ll have to see how they train and make decisions after that.
“Its nothing to be concerned about. They’ve passed all the relevant tests that they need to and in that regard, there’s nothing to be concerned about, so it’s just whether they’re well enough and feel strong enough to play.”
Ireland will run out in Baku to face a side ranked 117th in the world by FIFA with their qualification hopes already over after their opponents left Dublin last month with a 1-1 draw and Serbia emerged from their trip to the Aviva Stadium with the same result three days later.
Kenny, who is yet to win a competitive match as Ireland boss in 12 attempts, is expecting another tight encounter.
He said: “We know that Serbia came here and had to score a late goal to win the game, and certainly when they played Portugal earlier in the campaign, it was a narrow victory for Portugal, 1-0, so anything we get tomorrow, we’ll have to earn.
“We do understand that, but we’re ready for that challenge and we’re looking forward to it and we’re determined to try to get that victory that we need.”