Thursday 17 August 2017

Old guard all set to lead O'Neill's bid to take a giant step down road to Russia

Martin O’Neill on Wes Hoolahan: ‘If he never played another game for me now, he’s done brilliantly for us. Wes is incredibly popular at Norwich. They don’t realise he is 35 because he looks 18'. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill on Wes Hoolahan: ‘If he never played another game for me now, he’s done brilliantly for us. Wes is incredibly popular at Norwich. They don’t realise he is 35 because he looks 18'. Photo: Sportsfile

John Fallon

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill is prepared to place his faith in a pair of veterans to end the challenge of Austria for the upcoming World Cup qualifier which may become a game for the ages.

Victory on June 11 at the Aviva Stadium will all but assure Ireland a top-two finish in the final standings come October's conclusion and O'Neill won't mind if he approaches the play-off or the direct route to Russia with the spine of his side entering the twilight of their careers.

Injuries to Ciaran Clark and Shane Long may force the Derryman's hand regardless, but deploying John O'Shea and Wes Hoolahan against an Austrian team without their talisman Marko Arnautovic through suspension won't faze the manager.

O'Shea, who turned 36 last month, heads into the international programme on the back of his worst season ever, nursing the wounds from Sunderland's relegation to the Championship. Although out of contract, the club skipper is expected to remain on for his first-ever term outside of the top-flight, which may also be his last before retiring.

There he will join Hoolahan, the Norwich City playmaker voted Player of the Season at his club and who celebrated his 35th birthday yesterday.

Both might have feared their careers in an Irish jersey were nearing an end last June when O'Neill axed the pair as part of a cull from the side humbled by Belgium at the European Championships. Instead, they've been required during this latest campaign - O'Shea starting the crucial fixtures against Serbia and Wales while Hoolahan's injury-enforced absence for the latter game in March deprived O'Neill of a key attacking outlet.

"I don't have John around the squad just because he's a nice lad," explained the Ireland manager, who worked with O'Shea during his spell as Sunderland boss.

"There was great disappointment for him being left out of the side at the Euros but he took it like a man.

"When I spoke to him after the tournament I said, 'I'd like you to be around', and he said, 'Great, I'll go with it', because it might coincide with his club time.

"John is a really positive influence on the lads, and I don't just mean the younger lads. It's good to have him around - not just for the sake of it but because winning over 100 caps has earned him that right. If John does get the extra season at Sunderland, he will have the enthusiasm for the Championship. My advice to him would be to play as long as you can, even if it means dropping down. A lot of our squad is made up of Championship players."

That includes Hoolahan who, like O'Shea, is chasing one final tilt at reaching the World Cup.

From the perspective of Irish fans, the shame is that it took until O'Neill's appointment in 2013 for the Dubliner to be afforded an opportunity in the side, starting the first friendly against Latvia under the new regime and featuring in all but two of the 12 qualifiers along the way to France.

"I've played Wes more often than anyone else and he appreciates that," O'Neill says with a smile. "If he never played another game for me now, he's done brilliantly for us. Wes is incredibly popular at Norwich with his enthusiasm. They don't realise he is 35 because he looks 18.

"Wes has lovely ability and playing at home he gives us some creativity. He's had problems at club level with managers but we've used him as a No 10. To accommodate Wes, we need to have an incredible work-rate around him and that doesn't always work."

One player O'Neill is glad to see belatedly work on aspects of his game is Keiren Westwood. The Sheffield Wednesday keeper's mission of making a Premier League return was ended by the Owls' play-off defeat to Huddersfield Town, but his former Sunderland boss suggested he'll be challenging Darren Randolph for the No 1 spot against Austria.

"I've known Keiren for a long time and I think, as talent goes, he has enough to play in the Premier League," said O'Neill. "However, I want him to have the enthusiasm and ambition to do so. Maybe it has taken Keiren a bit of time to realise that, because he can be in a wee world of his own."

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