Stephen Kenny said Michael Obafemi made himself unavailable for the Republic of Ireland squad this month as he manages his work load to protect his hamstrings.

Obafemi and Aaron Connolly - nursing a heel problem - were both left out of Kenny's 25-man panel for the upcoming friendlies against Belgium and Lithuania.

In-form St Mirren man Connor Ronan gets the nod, while Oxford United midfielder Mark Sykes also gets a first call-up and Scott Hogan returns to the fold.

Sykes switched allegiance from Northern Ireland back in August 2020. Although he represented the North up to Under-21 level, he turned down an invitation to join Ian Baraclough's squad for Nations League games against Romania and Norway back in September 2019.

Jamie McGrath is surprisingly omitted, paying the price for a lack of game time at Wigan Athletic.

"I went to Swansea v Bristol City a few weeks ago. I had a good chat with him after the game and had a good conversation with him this week as well, and he would have been considered for selection if he'd have been available," Kenny said of Obafemi.

"He wasn't available for selection.

"The truth of it is that Michael has never played three games in a row before this year for his club, as far as I know. He's not played three games consecutively in his career, and the reason for that really is because of his persistent hamstring troubles he's had in his career.

"He's been dogged with hamstring issues. He's such an explosive player.

"It's been a heavy load for him. I think there's a degree of anxiety around Michael himself about being injured. He's never had what he's had before, a run of games, and he feels his load is so heavy, he's concerned about re-injuring himself coming into the international team and trying to train every day and play and play again.

"He feels he needs to spend time with the physios to make sure he can continue in the vein of form.

"But he reiterated his commitment to Ireland. He wants to pay for Ireland, certain that he wants to play for Ireland, but just the degree of anxiety he feels around coming in this week with his injury load, that's why he's not considered."

Aaron Connolly has been playing well for Middlesbrough

Connolly has started to find some form at Middlesbrough, where he's on loan from Brighton. He scored in a 2-0 midweek win at Birmingham and is finding some rhythm in Chris Wilder's team, who face Chelsea in an FA Cup quarter-final on Saturday evening.

He was left out of the squad for last November's World Cup qualifiers against Portugal and Luxembourg because of a heel problem, although Kenny did say this is a fresh injury rather than a relapse.

"Aaron missed the Spurs game with a heel injury and he's not been training, but playing with a degree of pain.

"He played the other night and they're obviously trying to get into the Premier League. He has not been able to train, he's been getting through matches and he scored the other night. We’re not in a position to let him come in for a week and not train and maybe play. He himself feels he needs to sort his heel out and the medical people want him to sort his heel issue out."

Meanwhile McGrath's pain is Ronan's gain. St Mirren's on-loan Wolves midfielder is in super form, hitting five goals in his last nine matches.

The 24-year-old sealed his call-up after scoring a fantastic long-range effort in Saturday's Scottish Cup loss to Hearts. His clubmate and fellow Irishman Alan Power talked up Ronan's capabilities, saying: "He's been brilliant.

"He's a fantastic player. I think everyone just looks at his goals, but the stuff he does off the ball and his work-rate is something that probably people in this team would notice more so than those on the outside.

"He deserves everything that comes his way. He has got into the Ireland squad and it's fully deserved from his performances."

Connor Ronan has been rewarded for his fine form

Ireland welcome the world No 1-ranked Belgians to Lansdowne Road on Saturday week for a glamour friendly that will mark the FAI's centenary year.

However, a lot of Roberto Martinez's biggest names will be absent. The Red Devils have adopted a policy of using players who have 50 caps or less for friendlies this year as they look to enhance their squad depth in the build-up to the Qatar World Cup in December.

That means Irish fans will miss out getting a close-up look at the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, but Belgium still possess enough quality to make this a good test for the hosts.

Lithuania come to the Aviva three days later on Tuesday, 29 March.


Republic of Ireland squad

Goalkeepers: Caoimhin Kelleher (Liverpool), Gavin Bazunu (Portsmouth, on loan from Manchester City), Mark Travers (AFC Bournemouth)

Defenders: Seamus Coleman (Everton), Matt Doherty (Tottenham Hotspur), Ryan Manning (Swansea City), James McClean (Wigan Athletic), Shane Duffy (Brighton and Hove Albion), John Egan (Sheffield United), Nathan Collins (Burnley), Dara O'Shea (West Bromwich Albion), Darragh Lenihan (Blackburn Rovers).

Midfielders: Conor Hourihane (Sheffield United, on loan from Aston Villa), Josh Cullen (Anderlecht), Jeff Hendrick (QPR, on loan from Newcastle United), Jayson Molumby (West Bromwich Albion, on loan from Brighton and Hove Albion), Alan Browne (Preston North End), Jason Knight (Derby County), Mark Sykes (Oxford United).

Forwards: Callum Robinson (West Bromwich Albion), Troy Parrott (MK Dons, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur), Will Keane (Wigan Athletic), Scott Hogan (Birmingham City), Chiedozie Ogbene (Rotherham United), Connor Ronan (St Mirren, on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers).