Willey was jettisoned in favour of the newly-qualified Jofra Archer in England’s final World Cup squad last year, but he marked his international return at the Ageas Bowl with 5-30 as Ireland stumbled to 172 all out.
It was his first five-wicket haul for England, who struggled to 78-4 in reply but Sam Billings’ ODI best 67 not out led the hosts over the line with 22.1 overs to spare as they drew first blood in this three-match series.
“It was just special to be playing for England again,” Willey said. “My main priority was to enjoy it so the (five wickets) were just the icing on the cake.
“I’ve been working quite hard to try to get back to my best and if not better than I have been previously. It’s been a roller coaster but I was just out there enjoying my cricket.
“I’m moving in the right direction and I feel like my best cricket is still to come. But it’s just great to be back out there wearing this shirt with the Three Lions on, so I just want to enjoy it.”
Willey had been a regular in the England side that rose from the shambles of the 2015 World Cup to topping the ODI rankings as part of a remarkable transformation under Eoin Morgan over the next four years.
But after England went on to win the World Cup without him, Willey has previously said he started to come to terms with the idea his international career might be coming to an end after being overlooked for limited-overs assignments in New Zealand and South Africa last winter.
Willey, though, highlighted England’s strength in depth in the white-ball formats, emphasised by some of the talents that have been left out of this 14-man squad which is missing several World Cup stars due to their Test commitments.
“It is an unbelievable squad,” Willey said. “You just have to look at the guys who didn’t get a look in and some of the guys who have gone home from this camp trying to find a way.
“It is credit to English cricket how many players there are trying to get in the side.
“Circumstances have given me this opportunity. I didn’t get a look in over the winter, I missed out there. The extended break has been really good for me.
“The timing for all of this has worked out perfectly for me and it was the icing on the cake for me.”
While Ireland managed to cause a few jitters in the home dressing room, they were ultimately left to rue an underwhelming collective display from their batsmen after limping to 28 for five.
However, debutant Curtis Campher, a South African-born all-rounder who qualifies through his mother’s passport and who has never before even played in Ireland, helped his country avoid complete embarrassment.
An innings of 59 not out from 118 balls may look pedestrian by modern standards but his composed and watchful knock made sure England were not faced with a perfunctory chase.
Ireland captain Andrew Balbirnie said: “I thought it was very impressive for a guy who has come in and he’s not even played a game in the country yet in Ireland.
“To come in as a 21-year-old and put in a performance like that was exactly what we needed. It was as good a debut as I’ve seen in an Irish shirt in the last number of years.”
On a surface where timing proved troublesome for a number of batsmen, the day belonged to Willey, who was chiefly responsible for Ireland teetering on 28-5 after being invited to bat first under sunny skies.
Ireland were saved from free fall by Campher, before Willey returned to the attack and ended the innings.
Willey’s prowess with the new ball is well-known and despite little evidence of significant movement, he was still in business as Paul Stirling clipped to midwicket before Ireland captain Andrew Balbirnie was tempted into an expansive drive, only succeeding in nicking through to Jonny Bairstow.
Saqib Mahmood cramped Harry Tector for room and the ODI debutant chopped on while Willey struck twice in two balls as Gareth Delany sliced to backward point to end a counter-attacking 22 from 16 deliveries, before Lorcan Tucker was trapped in front – a decision overturned on review after technology showed the ball crashing into leg stump.
Campher steadied the ship alongside Kevin O’Brien and then Andy McBrine, partnerships of 51 and 66 which helped Ireland avoid abject humiliation.
In reply, Bairstow was trapped in front by off-spinner McBrine after seamer Barry McCarthy had limped off in the first over.
Jason Roy and James Vince both flickered briefly before succumbing to Young, lbw and caught behind for 24 and 25 respectively, and England were in some strife when Campher struck four balls into his international career, with the scalp of Tom Banton.
Morgan joined Billings, whose crisp pull for his ninth four took him to a 41-ball fifty before Morgan (36no) thumped Singh back over his head to finish the game in style.
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