Pretenders to Dunne's throne must prove worth to O'Neill
GRADUALLY, the personality of Martin O'Neill's Ireland side is beginning to reveal itself. His selection for Sunday's friendly with Turkey promised to be the most informative of the entire summer series. The remaining three matches will be peppered by significant absences, with the Stoke contingent out of Saturday's Italian date at Craven Cottage and John O'Shea and Seamus Coleman given leave for the US leg. That pass could yet be extended to others.
For the Turkish encounter, O'Neill had the largest percentage of his first-choice squad available and, significantly, he went with a familiar shape in the context of last November and this March with Aiden McGeady and James McClean wide, Wes Hoolahan in the hole, and Marc Wilson effectively filling the James McCarthy role next to Glenn Whelan.
Admittedly, the specific positioning of Robbie Keane has to be resolved and there are other variables too, such as the return of Darron Gibson and Robbie Brady, but what's apparent is that a pecking order is developing and the fit players that weren't chosen in Ballsbridge will have to follow Jon Walters' example to climb back into consideration.
If there's one area that is clouded in a degree of uncertainty, however, it's in the heart of the back four. It was the area that O'Neill was asked to discuss in the most detail as he reflected after the full-time whistle.
Saturday's play-off final at Wembley must have given the Derryman some food for thought. With the Irish hat on, it was a tale of two Richards. There was Keogh, the Derby defender, gifting QPR a dramatic winner. And then there was Dunne, the iconic figure, rolling back the years for the victors with a commanding display.
When O'Neill gave Keogh a chance in the Serbian match two months ago, he was exploring the alternatives to Dunne after it was agreed that the senior citizen would be rested. Before the manager could speak to the Dubliner again, he read in newspapers that Dunne didn't want to be considered for the rest of this summer camp either. It was, he conceded, not the ideal way to find out.
"I might have taken it really badly some years ago," admitted O'Neill. "I'm taking it less badly now. You know what, it's like the kettle calling the pot black at times. I haven't always put out the message myself. I'd imagine some players would say, 'Oh the manager never told me this, he told me through a third party'."
More telling, perhaps, was O'Neill's reaction when asked if Dunne's contribution to the QPR success made his the best campaign for any Irish centre-half this term. Without hesitating, he presented Wilson as an alternative.
"I know I played him in midfield (on Sunday)," he said. "But after we played him at centre-half against Latvia, Mark Hughes moved him into centre-back. It might be to do with the injury to one of their centre-halves (Robert Huth) but he has done very well for Stoke City and he's played in the Premier League."
Dunne, on the other hand, hasn't lined out in a top-flight match since before Euro 2012. His enduring class was evident on Saturday but the Premier League, with its niftier attackers, can be more punishing.
"Richard would be the first to say, in the Championship you can maybe get done once or twice and there might not be a goal at the end of it," O'Neill stressed.
John O'Shea came through a rough ride to stay at the highest level this season and he's probably the most likely starter come September. Damien Delaney also mixed it with the best at Crystal Palace last season and that earned him an outing on Sunday, although he did err in the build-up to Turkey's opener.
"I've some other options that I'm going to look at too," O'Neill elaborated. "Ciaran Clark is here as well and big Alex Pearce so I'm going to look at a few options."
On experience, an O'Shea/Dunne combination stand out, but O'Neill refused to get drawn into a line of questioning on whether his preferred scenario would be an old pro next to a fresher face. "We're getting miles ahead of ourselves now," he cautioned. "It will depend, like everything else, on September and seeing what squad is available."
Nevertheless, this is one picture that could genuinely be altered by what happens over the course of the next fortnight. His regard for Wilson is obvious, yet his versatility could see him deployed elsewhere. Seamus Coleman is a lock at right-full, but Stephen Ward doesn't really have any natural competition at left-full and Wilson could still end up as part of that debate if the Wolves man is unconvincing.
Clark has featured on the left side in a different formation for Paul Lambert at Aston Villa.
The sheer volume of defenders in the squad means that rotation is bound to happen in the Italian match and especially the US dates with Costa Rica and Portugal. O'Neill has to learn about players he just met, whereas he knows Dunne inside out so the fact-finding mission is necessary. Still, the cheap concession of goals to Serbia and the Turks left some crying out for that familiar reliability and a repeat will drill home that point.
He will be almost 37 when the finals in France come around and has said that he doesn't know how much juice is left in the legs beyond the year remaining on his QPR contract. O'Neill's words would hint that he is contemplating leaving the long-term servant as an emergency option for the road ahead and plotting a new way. The actions of the pretenders over the rest of this window will deliver the verdict.
O'Neill's central defensive options
John O'Shea (Sunderland)
Age 33, Caps 96
Worked with O'Neill at Sunderland and Keane at Manchester United so management know what he brings to the table. Would seem to be in control of one slot.
Marc Wilson (Stoke)
Already a quarter of his total caps have come under this regime and it is apparent that he is foremost in their plans. He should be a regular in September but the performance of other options may determine the specific post.
Damien Delaney (Crystal Palace)
Enjoyed a resurgence in the last laps of his career and earned a start on Sunday, even if it didn't go spectacularly well. Wilson's unavailability this Saturday could secure him another one.
Richard Keogh (Derby)
One look at the Wembley goal would suggest Keogh comes with a health warning but he has been very consistent for Derby over two seasons and will be haunted by that error. O'Neill talked him up in March.
Ciaran Clark (Aston Villa)
The common perception would be that he has still got a lot to prove and O'Neill, who gave him his debut at club level, is well placed to monitor where he stands in his progression. Didn't really have a terrific season in a turbulent Villa side.
Alex Pearce (Reading)
Made his Irish bow as a sub at Craven Cottage and scored against Oman. O'Neill has been to see Reading a bit and didn't feel as though instant promotion was necessary. However, he should get an opportunity to push up the charts.
Shane Duffy (Everton)
The youngest member of the defensive conundrum has gained a lot of experience at Yeovil this term and has some Premier League experience. Has bags of potential but has a few bodies to overtake at the minute.