'Improving Ciaran Clark can boost Irish cause'
Kenny Cunningham believes that Ciaran Clark will be a key Irish player in the forthcoming Premier League season and wants Martin O'Neill to take note.
Clark agreed a new five-year deal with Aston Villa this week as recognition of his improvement last term and former Irish skipper Cunningham thinks this can be a major breakthrough year for the 25-year-old.
He would like to see O'Neill put Clark in his side for next month's qualifiers with Gibraltar and Georgia and relocate Marc Wilson.
Cunningham is convinced that Robbie Brady is not suited to an orthodox left-back role and feels he will be only be effective if there was a switch to a system featuring wing-backs - an experiment that would appeal to him given Seamus Coleman's attributes.
With this idea in mind, he will be watching Clark's performances carefully as he feels that the Londoner with Irish parents is on the verge of developing into a very good player.
"He's been in my head for the last couple of years for a load of different reasons," says Cunningham.
"I just like him. I liked him when he first stepped up at Aston Villa. He's not the most physically imposing of players, he's not going to dominate like that but he's tenacious and he likes the physical contact, which bites him in the backside at times.
"As a young player, you can get done by clever forwards, and he's been found out - as we all have been. That's part of the learning process. He's prepared to take a risk and I like that."
Villa manager Tim Sherwood gave Clark (right) responsibility last year and he responded to the challenge. Clark's Irish career has been curtailed by a combination of injury problems and reservations held by successive managers. Cunningham wants a fresh chapter.
"I think the physical side of the game has never been a big factor at international level," he says. "You're not really exposed to that side of the game as you would be in the Championship.
"You've got to be switched on, you've got to see danger, you've got to read the game well and you've got to be comfortable on the ball.
"He's a left-sided player, which always helps. He can travel into midfield in possession of the football which is important so I think he's got it all. I'm disappointed he hasn't made the breakthrough before now.
"And I mean now, before the games come around in September. Because by him coming through and really grabbing that jersey, I think it opens it up a little for us.
"I'd like to see Marc Wilson tried in central midfield, he's very comfortable sitting there, reading the game, putting his foot in and seeing danger."
Cunningham's wishlist for the rest of the season with the Irish hat on would include a regular berth in O'Neill's front line for Southampton's Shane Long.
"He has to play whatever system you play," he argues. "He's one of the most intelligent, disciplined players when you haven't got the ball.
"Having a forward player who understands his role in the team when you lose possession is important. I hear he's not prolific but who apart from Robbie (Keane) is? If you're defensively solid, I'm not sure we need a prolific goalscorer to get out of a group."
The ex-Birmingham defender is refusing to be too downhearted about Ireland's immediate future.
"I think we're better than what we're showing," stressed Cunningham, who will be appearing as a pundit on Setanta's Premier League Central. "I'll get pessimistic when we're getting the very best out of what we've got and we're still not qualifying."
With that in mind, he feels that the decision about O'Neill's contract should only be taken at the end of the Euro 2016 race - even if Ireland qualify - with performances the main factor.
"That's the time to sit down," he asserts. "The fundamental question should be, have Martin and Roy got the best out of the players available to them?
"If the answer to that is yes and we haven't qualified, give him a new contract. If we qualify and the answer is no, there may be an argument for getting rid of them.
"We should see how the manager sets up the team in a major competition, the biggest challenge of them all, before deciding whether this is the man to lead us forward."