Friday 28 October 2016

Daniel McDonnell: What Irish players are in pole position as race hots up for Euro spots?

Published 04/01/2016 | 02:30

Jonathan Walters scores for Stoke against West Brom Photo: Reuters / Andrew Boyers
Jonathan Walters scores for Stoke against West Brom Photo: Reuters / Andrew Boyers
Jeff Hendrick

Every second year, the review of the Irish international performances over the previous 12 months tends to end on a cliffhanger.

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Ireland's regular position in or around the race for play-off places means that when it's an even-numbered year, there is an absence of certainty in the annual view. More often than not, there is a feeling that fortunes are about to dramatically sway in either direction.

At Christmas 2014, the race to participate in next summer's European Championships was only really warming up, with a negative performance in Glasgow taking the gloss from the early promise. We expected that the defining moments of 2015 would be provided in the Dublin games with Poland in March and Scotland in June.

In the odd-numbered years, however, there is always a final verdict . When it goes wrong, managers tend to be changed and obituaries are written. Retirements are often on the agenda. When it goes well, the reflections are merged with excitement about what's coming the following summer.

As it happens, it was events in Tbilisi in September and Dublin in October that put Ireland's French campaign on the right tracks.

Martin O'Neill sent a confident side into their two-legged decider with Bosnia and they delivered the result that their performance deserved. He's got plenty of thinking to do but, this Christmas, his position is secure.

Instead, it's a nervier time for those players who were passengers for long stages of the journey to the intended destination. For the 25 men used in the 12 competitive qualifiers, the grading of their importance en route to Paris could shape their destiny.

Leading the way

Jonathan Walters

Five goals, each one of them important, and a starring show when it came to the crunch against Bosnia. The player of the year.

Seamus Coleman

It's taken a while to get the best from Coleman in an Irish jersey but his real quality shone through in the final two games, when his assured defending led by example.

Wes Hoolahan

He was injured in Scotland, and that was something of a turning point as he started every game from that point onwards once fully fit. In the defeat of Germany, his bravery on the ball was pivotal.

Moving up

Robbie Brady

The late sub in Glasgow made his left-back bow against the Poles in March and while he has suffered rocky moments, O'Neill's recognition that he should be on the pitch has made positive things happen.

Jeff Hendrick

Brady's childhood pal was given midfield responsibility and is growing into a fine player. Regular Premier League football would really aid his development.

James McCarthy

Germany was the point in the road where he showed Irish fans why he is so highly regarded at Everton. The 24-year-old can move to a new level next year.

Darren Randolph

Sprung from the background in the famous win over the world champions, and the competitive debutant looked like he'd done this before. In pole position for France if he can get games in new year.

Shane Long

He has only started two of the 12 competitive games in the O'Neill era and one of those was a poor show at Celtic Park. But wrote his name into the history books with stunner against Germany and that could be his game-changer.

Richard Keogh

The unsung hero of the back-to-back wins that made Ballsbridge rock. His composure turned out to be a real bonus for O'Neill.

Reliable performers

John O'Shea

Experience shone through on night that Muller, Ozil and co floundered.

Glenn Whelan

Much maligned, yet his presence kept Miralem Pjanic quiet at the Aviva.

Robbie Keane

His days as a regular starter are over. Still, he remains an important member of the dressing-room and will be there to the conclusion of this mission.

Daryl Murphy

Strange that he's in this category given the length of his exile but O'Neill trusts him because his work-rate and physicality tires opponents, and allows others to capitalise.

Well in touch

Ciaran Clark

He took a huge step forward in the play-offs after dropping behind his rivals in the early part of this campaign.

James McClean

Guilty of a few rash moments in the green jersey, but he's made huge strides in his club career and will definitely be involved in the Euros despite some recent problems at club level.

Cyrus Christie

Huge contribution to the German heroics when Coleman was unavailable and that should be enough to ensure he travels as an understudy.

Marc Wilson

He probably had higher expectations for his year, with mixed fortunes for club and country. However, his versatility makes him an ideal squad member and a possible starter.

Stephen Ward

A vote of confidence in the autumn when he was restored to the fold despite his Burnley inactivity. The worry for Ward is that Brady and Wilson could be viewed as sufficient left-back cover.

David Meyler

Can plug a few gaps and his efforts in the final 20 of the German win were overshadowed by the excellence of others. As it stands, he's done enough to board the flight.

Stuck in neutral

Shay Given

He's in the reliable bracket for O'Neill and he was made first choice again in 2015. But an unfortunate injury and his reserve status at Stoke has to be a worry.

Aiden McGeady

O'Neill will always gamble on his quality, but he's going nowhere fast at Everton

Darron Gibson

Like McGeady, he requires games. Unlike McGeady, his place in the squad could be vulnerable.

David Forde

Started Matchday 1 in Tbilisi with the gloves. Alas, he didn't get a look-in during the past 12 months and has been on the bench at Millwall too.

Stephen Quinn

Got the nod for testing encounters in 2014 but injury made him the forgotten man for the run-in. Would be unwise to rule him out of anything.

Kevin Doyle

Now based in Colorado Rapids and on the fringes of the Ireland squad, with a cameo at home to Gibraltar his last meaningful outing. The problem for the Wexford man is that friendly changes will be weighted towards unknown quantities.

Still in the race

What of the players who didn't get the chance to contribute to the successful tilt?

Harry Arter has emerged as the clear front runner from that group, with his quality at Bournemouth turning heads. Injury stopped him from breaking through in the autumn. If he stays fit, he should come to the fore in 2016.

O'Neill rates David McGoldrick, but he's spending too long on the sidelines at Ipswich Town as Mick McCarthy bids to plot a promotion push.

Alan Judge deserves a crack in March and Rob Elliot is knocking on the goalkeeping door too, with Keiren Westwood falling back because he is consistently unavailable.

Richie Towell would have to make a stunning impact at Brighton in a very short window, while squad regulars Paul McShane, Alex Pearce and Shane Duffy need their centre-half rivals to suffer misfortune.

Anthony Stokes has the ability to be part of the discussion, but it's a while since he demonstrated it.

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