Renaissance man McGeady back to his best
O'Neill excited by resurgence of a player with 'big league' ability
When an Ireland manager announces an international squad, the rump of the discussion tends to be dominated by new faces or those who have missed out.
Martin O'Neill is familiar with that drill at this stage. A few years back, Jack Grealish was the name on everyone's lips. More recently, Scott Hogan was a persistent talking point. In November, the inclusion of then Dundalk duo Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle garnered attention.
But instead of ruminating on the merits of John Egan and Liam Kelly, the Derryman spent a good deal of yesterday's squad announcement for the forthcoming World Cup qualifier discussing a 30-year-old with 86 caps, a player who has always polarised opinion.
Indeed, when Horgan was on the bench for the win over Austria, there were groans from some quarters when Aiden McGeady was summoned ahead of him.
The argument was that we already knew what we were going to get from McGeady. Even though he's approaching centurion status, the suspicion lingers that Irish fans have never truly seen the best of an individual with the ability to thrill and exasperate in equal measure. Or maybe a little more from Column B, according to his harshest critics.
In fairness to the winger, he is aware of the scepticism and has agreed with some of the criticism. And so too has O'Neill, who has nevertheless stuck with him through a turbulent spell at Everton.
At this moment in time, however, it could be argued that McGeady is the form player in the Irish squad. A loan move to Preston and the support of Simon Grayson has given his career a new lease of life.
The North End fans are enjoying Horgan, a surprise package who has seamlessly adapted to life in England since moving from Dundalk. However, they were already besotted with McGeady, who has got back the swagger that characterised his teenage days at Celtic under the watchful eye of O'Neill.
He is now a serious contender for involvement against the Welsh on March 24, particularly with suspension ruling out the creative Robby Brady.
If O'Neill was willing to take a chance on an out of form and unfit version of the Glaswegian, then the trim and confident player who should report for duty next Sunday will travel in the expectation that he has a role to play in the World Cup mission.
The 65-year-old still speaks about McGeady in almost paternal tones. For he has always believed there's more in the locker.
"I don't wish to hear Aiden glorifying himself," he laughed, when asked if he had spoken to McGeady lately. "I watched him play a few weeks ago and he did fine; he has always been an exceptionally talented footballer.
"He's looking fitter and more athletic again and that comes from playing a lot of games. His confidence is definitely up, and you know he is a confidence player anyway. The manager believes in him, which is good news.
"And he has more or less a free role to play there and he's helping the side which is great news, really good.
"My advice to him has always been to play his football in the right areas. I think that has been a problem for him. It's trying to dribble out of difficult positions when you are 30 yards from your own goal (that's a problem).
"He can frustrate himself because he knows - he is actually a bright boy - that he cannot help himself. Seriously, he cannot help himself.
"He just feels 'I can do this' and what will happen is that he will have lost the ball, the other team will have attacked from that mistake and it might have caused a few problems. Then, suddenly, when you lose the ball two or three times as a dribbler you lose a bit of confidence.
"I say, do all that fantastic footwork where it really matters. And I think that if he did that then he would be playing in the big league. Because he has Premier League feet."
O'Neill believes that the next few months might just determine the course that the rest of McGeady's career takes. Preston are on the fringes of a play-off picture and he's still on top-flight wages.
If they miss out, which is the percentage at this juncture, he will face a decision in the summer. And it remains to be seen if he will have done enough for another high-level boss to take a chance.
"I would seriously doubt (he has a future at Everton)," O'Neill continued, " I think between now and the end of the season will probably define where he's going to go and how he's going to approach it.
"In the Premier League I don't think you can afford, at the very, very top level, to carry players unless they are producing one in every three moves or something like this. You have to be getting a big end product from creative players.
"And the minute, they lose the ball they'd have to get back into positions again. If anyone was sending scouts to Preston's matches or even our games if Aiden gets on the field, those are the type of things that Premier League people would be looking at. You have to weigh one thing up against the other."
O'Neill does believe, however, that McGeady is conscious that time is running out and he needs to improve his return of goals and assists.
"I think Aiden has had a look at himself and realised I've really got to do something - I'm not getting any younger. This is not embryonic talent anymore. You have to fulfil it. It's one thing talking about it it's another thing actually doing it," said O'Neill.
By contrast, James McClean and Jon Walters have been key men in recent campaigns because of their ability to make the most of their chances.
McClean has spent most of 2017 on the West Brom bench but the manager has no worries about his fitness, while Stoke City's Walters has offered a positive bulletin on the knee issue that kept him on the sidelines until last week.
With a clean bill of health, one would assume they are certain starters. But it's clear that a rejuvenated McGeady is very much a part of the equation.
Ireland (provisional squad v Wales and v Iceland)
Goalkeepers: C Doyle (Bradford City), R Elliot (Newcastle Utd), D Randolph (West Ham), K Westwood (Sheffield Wed)
Defenders: S Coleman (Everton), C Christie, R Keogh, A Pearce (Derby County), P McShane (Reading), A Boyle (Preston), J O'Shea (Sunderland), C Clark (Newcastle Utd), J Egan (Brentford), S Ward (Burnley), M Doherty (Wolves).
Midfielders: A McGeady, D Horgan (Preston), G Whelan (Stoke), J McCarthy (Everton), J Hendrick, R Brady (Burnley), D Meyler (Hull City), L Kelly (Reading), D Gibson (Sunderland), H Arter (Bournemouth), E O'Kane (Leeds Utd), C Hourihane (Aston Villa), S Gleeson (Birmingham City), W Hoolahan (Norwich), A Pilkington (Cardiff City), C O'Dowda (Bristol City), J Hayes (Aberdeen), J McClean (West Brom).
Forwards: K Doyle (Colorado Rapids), S Long (Southampton), D McGoldrick (Ipswich), D Murphy (Newcastle Utd), A Rooney (Aberdeen), J Walters (Stoke City).