Saturday 3 December 2016

What Ireland players will make Martin O'Neill's Euro 2016 squad?

Sentiment a side issue when Ireland manager is forced to cut down his options for France

Published 21/11/2015 | 02:30

There was no fanfare when Jack Charlton named his Ireland squad for the 1988 European Championships.

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The absence of Liam Brady, brought about by a combination of suspension and injury, was confirmed weeks before Charlton submitted his final 20-man list. Teenagers Mark Kelly and Steve Staunton, who had been involved in training, missed out and the disappointment was cushioned by the belief that their time would come. For the luckless Kelly, there would be no second chance.

In the period between qualification and the tournament, Charlton did make changes to his plans. He resisted the temptation to bring in unlikely converts.

"I'm not trying to get a cheap ticket to the European Championship finals or anything like that," insisted Vinnie Jones when he announced his Irish interest two months before the tournament.

When it came to the crunch, however, Charlton did include three players, Chris Morris, David Kelly and Tony Cascarino, who did not participate in any of the qualifiers. He made big calls in 1990 and 1994 too, with sentiment down the list of priorities.

The build-up to 2002 raised the bar for unexpected developments heading into a major tournament. Kevin Foley's abrupt ejection from Giovanni Trapattoni's plans in 2012, which he learned about when the Italian and his assistant Marco Tardelli got the hotel card for his room and woke the startled defender from a nap to tell him the bad news, was another reminder of how the loyal servants on the periphery of the panel run the risk of cruel rejection at the last minute.

Martin O'Neill savoured every moment in the aftermath of Monday night's assertive play-off defeat of Bosnia. During the week, he stressed that he wanted to enjoy it with the players, backroom staff, medical team and all the other cogs in the wheel.

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The reality for the manager is that he's now at the start of a planning process which will result in some major decisions and bitter disappointments for popular individuals that revel in the club atmosphere that exists in this national team's dressing room .

For qualifying fixtures O'Neill has worked with groups of up to 30 players that are only whittled down to 23 on the day with the rest sitting in the stands. Ahead of France, he will have to decide on the right balance in advance of the competition and stick with it. Here are some areas where he faces tough choices.

The goalscoring midfielder

Ireland are badly in need of a serious threat from the centre of the park. Glenn Whelan's two goals came in the World Cup 2010 campaign, while James McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick are still waiting to get off the mark for their country and Wes Hoolahan is a creator rather than a consistent scorer. Robbie Brady's strike in Zenica eight days ago illustrated what he is capable of, but it's possible he could be required in a defensive brief.

Aiden McGeady came up trumps in Georgia on the opening day, yet has lost his place with Ireland because he is completely out in the cold at Everton. The two names that immediately spring to mind here are Alan Judge and Harry Arter, both of whom were referenced by Roy Keane on Tuesday.

Arter registered nine for Bournemouth en route to promotion last term, while Judge has already notched six for Brentford this season.

If these players take their chance in the friendly warm-ups then established popular squad members David Meyler and Stephen Quinn could be under a bit of pressure.

O'Neill has indicated that he is a big admirer of Arter and it's likely that he would be further up the pecking order already only for the unfortunate setback that prevented him from participating in the start of his employers' Premier League adventure as well as Ireland's September and October European double-headers.

March's friendly encounter against Switzerland is the ideal opportunity to pitch him in for a start.

Robbie Keane dilemma

What now for the skipper? As a substitute, he has seamlessly slotted into an ambassadorial role within the group. His run onto the field at the full-time whistle against Germany to embrace Shane Long said a lot about him.

Indeed, in the fog of Zenica, when it became apparent that the country's record goalscorer would not be figuring in the game, he joined the voices bellowing instructions on the sideline; it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see him there in a full-time working capacity one day. His importance as a player might have diminished, but his importance as a presence around the camp has not.

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Jon Walters and Shane Long are certainties to travel and Daryl Murphy looks to have a part to play in O'Neill's preferred set-up, especially with Walters able to cover in other areas. Kevin Doyle, who also earns his corn in the MLS these days, made the final Bosnia squad ahead of Adam Rooney and Anthony Stokes. David McGoldrick is well regarded by management but has developed an injury-prone streak that has limited his chance to make an impression.

As it stands, the percentage call is that the Tallaght man will be included in the final party as a joker in the pack and the best finisher in the squad. Still, a spectating role for the 180 minutes of the Bosnian tie means that he is no longer in the banker category and if McGoldrick came back to life and finished his season with a flourish and an outside candidate such as Joe Mason built on his decent form at Championship level with Cardiff this season then a straightforward call could become slightly more complicated.

The goalkeeping issue

This has the potential for heartbreak. Darren Randolph has warmed to the task of senior responsibility and, while his prospects of regular involvement at West Ham are slim for the moment, his profile means that he will be going even if he's not first pick.

To say he wouldn't be in that position might seem strange given his comfort in the role, but Shay Given came out of international retirement because he was viewed as the preferred option and it will be interesting to see where he stands when he is next available for selection.

David Forde kicked off in Tbilisi with the gloves and was excellent in Gelsenkirchen yet after committing to Millwall amid interest from a higher level, he's stuck on the bench in League One which is a curious state of affairs that has really affected his Irish position.

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Keiren Westwood is the only long-term squad member that is the number one with his club, yet he's consistently unavailable for his chosen country and that has harmed his position. The sympathy levels would be higher for Forde were he to miss out.

Then there's Stephen Henderson, a regular at Charlton, who came in for Rob Elliot as the back-up for Bosnia with Newcastle keen to look after their deputy in the absence of Tim Krul. Given and Forde may well have to address their club situations to cement their status.

The value of versatility

Key calls in previous tournaments were shaped by an individual's ability to cover more than one position. Paul McShane was preferred to Foley in 2012 because he could deputise at centre-back as well as right full.

This is why a character like Darron Gibson, who was mentioned by both O'Neill and Keane this week as one of the players that has to get regular football, has cause to be worried. He is now established as a deep-lying midfielder and only really offers cover in that area.

By contrast, rivals such as Meyler and Quinn can fulfil a variety of roles with the former stationed at right-back away to Germany and that's why the odds are in his favour even if Arter suddenly jumps up the midfield pecking order. If Ireland require an extra holding midfielder, O'Neill could also turn to Marc Wilson who he previously mentioned as someone who could do a job there.

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The Stoke operator might have lost his place in the starting XI having kicked off the mission next to John O'Shea, but his ability to cover across the back four means he is practically a certainty to be in the 23. Stephen Ward was picked ahead of him in Zenica but is marked as vulnerable because if Robbie Brady grew into the left-back berth, then Wilson could be cast as the back-up with Ciaran Clark as Plan C.

Similarly, while Cyrus Christie has a bit of left-back action on his CV, he is effectively a right-back by trade. He was excellent against the Germans, and at this stage it's safe to assume he would go as Seamus Coleman's deputy. Nevertheless, Meyler and Wilson could be viewed as sufficient cover if misfortune struck the Donegal flier mid-competition. McShane is primarily a centre-half these days, but he could pop into considerations too.

The Bolters

At this stage, it's difficult to envisage a player emerging from outside the squad. The aforementioned Mason is a possibility. O'Neill has gone to watch tidy midfielder Stephen Gleeson of Birmingham. James McClean made Euro 2012 after leaving the League of Ireland just 10 months previously and making his English debut in the December of the qualification year; Richie Towell and Daryl Horgan would have to find a very good club and hit the ground running in January to come into the frame. They'd have greater scope for promotion if they were a left-back or a striker.

Jack Byrne, on loan at Dutch outfit Cambuur from Manchester City, is definitely a future senior international. The technically proficient U-21 midfielder would have to do something special to get into the mix but if O'Neill wanted to find a place for a talent that might be a major part of the next campaign then the Dubliner would come into the frame. In reality, it's only the larger nations that really have the freedom to make a long-term call like that.

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Irish history would suggest that necessity will determine decisions that will be left to the very last minute.

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