Richard Sadlier: O'Neill likely to explore all options for life after Robbie
New regime's eagerness for variety in attack reduces concerns over captain's age, writes Richard Sadlier
Now is not the time to point to Steve Staunton's opening result as Ireland manager, nor to focus on the quality of Friday's opposition. There were so many positives from the game with Latvia that it's hard not to get carried away with what may lie ahead under Martin O'Neill.
From the individual displays to the collective approach, it was far removed from what we've had to sit through in the recent past. And Wes Hoolahan, a player of genuine class, is finally being treated in the way he deserves.
For a long time the decision facing successive Ireland managers has been to choose a partner in attack for Robbie Keane, but Hoolahan gave such an impressive performance that he may be on his way to making that position his own. Comfortable and skilful on the ball, quick and clever in his movement, he played exactly as those calling for his introduction for so long believed he could. Completely in contrast to Keane's display, all that was missing from his game was a goal.
Keane himself gave the same performance he has been giving for Ireland for some time – lethal in front of goal when the opportunity arrived but of little impact in other areas of the game. He spoke last week of his plans post-retirement but is still as committed to playing for Ireland as he always has been. Of the many possible changes the new regime could have brought about, nobody speculated that Keane's mentality would alter in the slightest.
But desire to play won't be enough for much longer and Keane is aware of that. He is heading into what is likely to be the final chapter of his international career, and the next qualifying campaign will probably be his last. As astonishing as his appearance record is, few would expect him to be in the plans beyond the summer of 2016. You'd have to be worried for Irish football if he was, but Keane himself knows that time could catch up on him even before then.
"If there is a situation near the Euros where, for some reason, my legs are gone then I'll pack it in. There's no question. I'm not stupid," he said. That time will inevitable come, as it does for all players, but how O'Neill handles that transition will be a big part of his job.
Hoolahan could be the key player for Ireland in the upcoming campaign. That is more to do with the change of management and philosophy than any improvements he has made to his game. There was nothing surprising in how he played on Friday. If he maintains that standard for Ireland he will play in every game and O'Neill's decision will be down to who to play him alongside. That will most likely be Keane for the short term. And unlike his predecessor, you'd assume O'Neill would be open to considering the alternatives.
What are they? Shane Long could blossom under a manager who rates him, while Jonathan Walters and Kevin Doyle could both flourish in a system that allows for independent thought. Even Anthony Stokes may finally be ready to mature into a viable option over time at this level. Ireland have a variety of players to consider in attack and now have a manager who appears to be open to considering them all. That alone is enough to feel optimistic about the future and reduce the concerns around Keane's age.
Keane spoke last week of his plans to go into coaching when he retires and is set to begin work on
his badges in January with the FAI. He says he has a passion for it and wants to remain in the game for as long as he can.
Keeping his place in O'Neill's team is of greater importance now but planning for the inevitable is always a wise thing to do. That's exactly why O'Neill should explore his other options.
Hoolahan won't provide any long-term alternative but can add an entirely different threat throughout the coming campaign. A feature of Giovanni Trapattoni's reign was the lack of creativity in attack. That won't be an issue with Hoolahan on the pitch if given the freedom to play to his strengths. It won't be a feature for a team given the licence to attack in numbers when the opportunity arises.
It was a pleasure watching Ireland play on Friday. It hasn't been that way in a long time, but tougher tasks lie ahead. So, too, will the tougher decisions. For O'Neill, perhaps the main one will be what to do with the current captain.