Daniel McDonnell: Decision day looms with James McCarthy still a doubt
O’Neill insists Everton midfielder an injury concern but insists ‘he’s worth waiting on’
Published 30/05/2016 | 02:30
The Ireland team will kick off their week in Cork today with the fitness of James McCarthy providing Martin O'Neill with as much stress as the process of whittling down his squad to 23 bodies.
McCarthy is due to participate in training at Turner's Cross today and, while O'Neill's bottom-line conclusion is that he thinks the Everton midfielder should be fine for the tournament, the Ireland boss has all but ruled him out of tomorrow's Turner's Cross game with Belarus and confessed that he is less confident than he was this time last week.
With the centre of midfield the main area that is troubling O'Neill in terms of his selection process, a question mark over a key element of his team is an unwelcome variable.
"We're going to have another look at some things and see how he is again on Monday," said the 64-year-old, as he reflected on the 1-1 draw with Holland at the Aviva Stadium. "I said before that I didn't think it was a big concern.
"I can say no more than that at this minute, that I think he should be okay. Should be okay. I thought with plenty of confidence during the middle of the week, from the news I was getting, that everything would be okay, and I would be only slightly less confident now.
"He's doing some stuff at this minute with the medical team and the scans have been clear, both the one at Everton and the one we've done."
"So, while that's reassuring, it doesn't necessarily mean everything's right. And you're still feeling something a little bit. James is one of those lads who genuinely likes to be training, not missing a few days, and then you start to get a wee bit worried in case he's missed out for a while."
After his initial thoughts appeared to contain a trace of doubt which wasn't there in the lead-up to the Aviva Stadium game, O'Neill was again asked directly if he would name McCarthy in his squad tomorrow night if uncertainty lingered. He indicated that the player might be offered an input.
"I'll be guided by him and Alan (Dr Alan Byrne) really on that one," he responded, "Remember, the games in France come thick and fast. But I sometimes think that you can't be thinking that every single player will be alright for every one at the games.
"In an ideal world, it would be great. But James, I think, has earned the right to be one of those to have consideration at least to the very last moment. And he's worth waiting on as well.
"This is something new," he continued, dismissing the suggestion that he had managed this particular injury at the back of his hamstring before. "He's had problems before - remember he missed the game for us against Scotland that time, but this is a separate thing, something he hasn't had before.
"He played Everton's last game, he came off after 55 minutes. He was scanned on Tuesday and got reassurance from that. He started to jog on the Friday before he joined up with us and that's when he started to feel it a little bit.
"I think you're making me a paint a worse picture," O'Neill smiled, "I think he's going to be okay. I was just a wee bit disconcerted by the fact he was still feeling it a little on Friday morning. He's getting some work done and we'll see how he is after going home and resting up over the weekend.
"Having spoken to James myself, and James likes to get a clear head, I think that things are alright. Okay? I think they are. From what has been put forward by Alan, the medical staff and James himself, I don't think he would be ready for Tuesday. Unless there's been a dramatic improvement over the weekend."
O'Neill has confirmed that Daryl Murphy, Robbie Keane and Aiden McGeady will all get the nod from the outset tomorrow.
Murphy returned to training at the start of last week after taking every precaution with a calf problem and, while his international manager said that a first Irish goal for the striker would be most welcome, a drama-free evening will be the 33-year-old's priority.
Kevin Doyle will also have to be accommodated at some stage having flown in from club duty in the MLS. "Otherwise he might take my head off," O'Neill quipped.
The striking picture appeared to be a case of Shane Long, Jon Walters, Keane and Murphy definitely travelling, with the hopes of Doyle and David McGoldrick resting on whether a fifth was accommodated.
McGoldrick was given a lengthy outing against the Dutch in Wes Hoolahan's attacking midfield role and it was suggested afterwards that he gives Ireland something they don't otherwise have.
"He's strong lad and he's got nice ability," said O'Neill, when pressed on that statement. "He gets into positions where it's difficult for the two centre-backs to pick him up and he can see a pass. That's when he's fully fit, when he's raring to go.
"When he's fit - and I've seen him play in the Championship - he's definitely a handful. And he can cause you that problem, he can see that pass and he can convert, believe it or not.
"We haven't seen that in these games here for one reason or another, mainly because of fitness. Even on Friday, I thought he was fine but I thought he got a little bit tired towards the end of the first half a wee bit. He got a second wind in the second half."
It's concerns about his durability that might end up costing the Ipswich player, especially if the need to trial other attack-minded options prevents him from getting a proper opportunity against Belarus.
There will be local interest in Corkman David Meyler, who came on for the final five minutes of Hull's play-off win on Saturday over a Sheffield Wednesday team that was kept in the game by Keiren Westwood - the in-form keeper may still miss out on the finals.
Meyler is by no means certain to feature on his old stomping ground, although O'Neill has namechecked him on several occasions with a nod to his popularity within the dressing-room.
The speed with which he has to make his final call - effectively in the minutes after the full-time whistle - means that the players left out are in a situation where they will be secretly hoping that rivals in their position don't set the world alight.
"I'm pretty well close on things," said O'Neill. "Ideally, it would be fine, if that was the case, if we had a wee bit of time to think about it.
"Meyler may or may not get on the field of play but he's been great for us, a big boost, he's very popular and all of those things and threw everything into the game in Germany and the point that helped us there."
Stephen Quinn was also part of that draw in Gelsenkirchen and, like Meyler, is under threat because of the emergence of Harry Arter.
As he makes the trip south, O'Neill will have to decide if there really is any room for sentiment.