Cameo men audition for starring roles
JUDGING by the chaotic scenes on the streets of Gdansk and Poznan last summer, it's safe to assume there are quite a few Irish fans out there with little recollection of their time in Poland.
With Giovanni Trapattoni's regime still shaking off the hangover from that souring experience, it seems fitting that he entertains the Poles tonight with a team dominated by players with no Euro 2012 memories.
The rapport between the fans of the two countries led to the staging of this friendly match but, football-wise, it was a journey to forget. Eight months later, Trapattoni sends a team into battle with just four players that featured in the finals.
The only consistency between the three Group C games and this encounter is the presence of Glenn Whelan in the heart of the midfield. John O'Shea, then at right-full, is at centre-half tonight, while Shane Long and James McClean had to settle for cameo roles off the bench.
David Forde and Paul McShane didn't catch or kick a ball in the Euros, but the former now has an opportunity to become a prominent part of the World Cup campaign. Similar comments apply to Ciaran Clark, Greg Cunningham, Robbie Brady and Conor Sammon, who watched from afar after missing the cut, although the latter pair weren't even part of the conversation at that point.
James McCarthy, who is again selected next to Whelan, was absent from the tournament for family reasons, but has subsequently seized the chance to become a regular.
What Trapattoni requires from tonight is evidence that his fringe performers are capable of making a move into the mainstream.
The shadow of next month's trip to Sweden looms over this exercise and, in particular, the ongoing injury problems of a host of players who aren't here. Defence is the primary concern, with Richard Dunne's struggles never more than a few minutes away from discussion.
"We'll give Richard every chance we can," said tonight's skipper O'Shea, who could be asked to assume the senior central role again in Stockholm if the Aston Villa stalwart is absent. "He's gutted, not just for himself, but for Ireland. If called upon, I'll do the job but Dunny has a fantastic heart. If anyone can be ready, it will be Richard."
With Sean St Ledger also enduring a stop-start recovery from hamstring problems and Darren O'Dea still in pre-season with Toronto, O'Shea and Clark are conscious this could be a dress rehearsal for a far more important test.
Clark has received words of encouragement from O'Shea and Trapattoni after a tough spell at Aston Villa. He was eviscerated by Alan Hansen on 'Match of the Day' last Saturday, but O'Shea senses a tough resolve. "A wise head on young shoulders," he said. "He's probably glad of a break (from Villa)."
The last line of defence is provided by Forde, a 33-year-old who has suffered his fair share of setbacks in a career that could be reaching its high point at a late stage.
His fellow Galwegian Cunningham was on Trapattoni's radar as a teenager before a broken leg stunted his progress. With Marc Wilson absent and management knowing enough about Stephen Ward, the Bristol City lad is preferred. He is another with everything to gain.
McClean, who has raised anticipation in the social media world by returning to Twitter, is deployed ahead of Cunningham, with Brady on the other flank. The Hull man has a more prominent place in the manager's affections and he feels that he offers the main creative outlet in his starting side; Wes Hoolahan has to wait for the second half again.
While a fit Aiden McGeady is an automatic pick, the other wide berth remains up for grabs in the post-Duff era. Anthony Pilkington may have something to say about that eventually, but with his passport tucked away for now, the Polish test will tell Trap if either of tonight's wingers are preferable to the re-deployment of a willing striker on March 22.
O'Shea thinks that McClean should concentrate on getting forward more. In an ideal world, all the action will happen in the Polish half tonight. Trapattoni says that his Long/Sammon axis can make that possible from the outset.
He feels Sammon is capable of holding the ball up and bringing others into play, thus allowing the hosts to operate higher up the pitch. "It can help us to develop and open the game up," he said.
Still, in the same breath, he spoke about defending from the front, and the obligatory reference to world rankings highlighted the importance of a positive outcome. O'Shea acknowledged that a morale-lifting boost is necessary.
There were some plus points from the November loss to Greece, mostly involving the much-missed Seamus Coleman, yet the bottom line is that Ireland suffered another home defeat. "Without a doubt, we have to get a positive result and give everyone a lift," said Waterford man O'Shea.
Club demands will mean that some protagonists only feature for 45 minutes, and Trapattoni wants to incorporate Derby's Richard Keogh and Jeff Hendrick at some stage. He is also keen on examining a Hoolahan/Sammon pairing, but Kevin Doyle and Jonathan Walters also have to be factored into considerations.
A reminder of the established pecking order came in response to a query about where Robbie Keane stands when he reports for the double header with the Swedes and Austria.
Last month, Trapattoni hinted that his skipper might be vulnerable, but ambiguity was lacking when the topic cropped up. After initially embarking on a five-minute tangent in response to a simple question, Trap cut to the chase when asked again if the Tallaght man remained his first pick. "Yeah, sure," he responded without hesitation.
It's clear that while a few starting spots are up for grabs, the real purpose is to add strength and depth in the hope that the crocked reliables will return in full health.
A solid show from Forde and Clark, sparkle from the wide men, and an illustration of the varied options in attack will increase belief that this year's big trip can have a happier ending.
Prediction: Ireland 1 Poland 1