COMMENT - Ireland's 2018 World Cup hopes rest on a decision by Scott Hogan
The Republic of Ireland travel to Moldova this weekend looking to maintain an encouraging start to their World Cup qualifying campaign, yet their success in getting to Russia could ultimately hinge on the outcome of a conversation that will take place hundreds of miles away in London next week.
With four points from their first two games, which puts them level with Austria, Serbia and Wales, Group D looks like it will be tight. Games will be won and lost by the smallest of margins and Ireland’s lack of firepower puts them at a huge disadvantage.
They have plenty of qualities to admire, but they also lack something vital to any successful side, which is why manager Martin O’Neill is trying so hard to persuade prolific Brentford striker Scott Hogan to commit to Ireland.
Hogan has scored 14 goals in 13 league starts for the Championship club, following a £750,000 move from Rochdale in 2014, and has been watched regularly by Ireland’s assistant manager Roy Keane.
The 24-year-old was born in Salford, but has three Irish grandparents and seems keen to play for the boys in green. Hogan, who has been repeatedly likened to England and Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy, will have a meeting with O’Neill before the end of the month, with the hope that he will commit in time to play against Austria in the next round of international fixtures.
Keane is also likely to also attend that meeting and Hogan, a boyhood Manchester United fan, has already indicated he will accept their offer. “I couldn’t say no to Roy Keane,” Hogan said last month. “He is one of my heroes."
For the first time in years, Ireland are set to benefit from England’s strength. Hogan has little chance of breaking into Gareth Southgate’s squad, given he is playing in the Championship and has the likes of Harry Kane, Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge, Theo Walcott, as well as Jamie Vardy, ahead of him.
International football will be a huge step up for Hogan, but he has been making them ever since he was released by Everton as a schoolboy and rejected three times after trials with Manchester United. Having initially drifted out of football, working in a factory while a student, he has risen through the leagues with Hyde United, Stocksbridge , Halifax Town – where he was a teammate of Vardy – and Rochdale.
Two serious knee injuries threatened to bring his career to a premature end, but he has recovered after specialist treatment in America and is repaying Brentford for their support during his recovery with a superb goals-to-game ratio.
“He looks a really good player, a proper goalscorer,” said Keane, when asked about Hogan. “Please God, he would like to come on board with us because I think we would be good for him as well.”
Ireland have grown into a typical Martin O’Neill team, physically strong, resilient and determined. They are team which shakes off their individual limitations through collective endeavour. There is much to admire in the way they go about things, but they still desperately need a predator like Hogan.
Shane Long is a fine player and was vital during Ireland’s European Championship campaign, scoring a wonderful goal against Germany, but he has never been a consistent goalscorer. Worryingly for Ireland in Moldova, he has gone 19 games for club and country without one.
Jonathan Walters has been superb under O’Neill, but the Stoke City player turned 33 last month and will surely retire from international football at the end of this qualification campaign.
Having already lost Ireland’s record goalscorer Robbie Keane to retirement after the Euros, Ireland’s only other attacking options are Daryl Murphy, who at the age of 33 is injured and nothing more than a squad player at Newcastle United.
The fact Murphy scored his first international goal against Serbia last month, in his 24 appearance, says it all. Another 33-year-old, Kevin Doyle, was left out of Ireland’s Euro squad, plays for Colorado Rapids in America and is not going to get any better.
Hogan’s arrival could make all the difference. O’Neill does not want to assume anything at this stage, but should Hogan agree to become an adopted Irishman, it could well be the pivotal moment in his bid to take Ireland to their first World Cup since 2002.