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Irish Old guard forced to stay on stage too long

Young guns yet to show they can replace likes of Ward and Walters

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TOUGH NIGHT: Wales’ Gareth Bale is closed down by Ireland’s Stephen Ward during their
UEFA Nations League match at the Cardiff City Stadium last Thursday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

TOUGH NIGHT: Wales’ Gareth Bale is closed down by Ireland’s Stephen Ward during their UEFA Nations League match at the Cardiff City Stadium last Thursday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

TOUGH NIGHT: Wales’ Gareth Bale is closed down by Ireland’s Stephen Ward during their UEFA Nations League match at the Cardiff City Stadium last Thursday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Jack Charlton had a problem. A big one, as he saw it.

The old actors needed to leave the stage but didn't know it.

It came to a head for Ireland's most successful manager ever in 1989. Three Irish heroes, named by Charlton as Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton and Tony Galvin, were past it, "coming to the end of their time" as he put it, but they didn't want to move off the stage and had to be forced off.

"With Ireland, they don't give up their f****** heroes easily so you're really go to show 'em," Charlton later said.

So Charlton's way was to "put 'em on display", replacing Brady after half an hour of a friendly at home to West Germany, just to humiliate him.

With this Ireland team under Martin O'Neill's it's the opposite. O'Neill would prefer if he could move some of the veterans off the stage. Problem is, as he views it, those on the way up are nowhere near the standard needed, so it's back to the same well.

Stephen Ward and Jon Walters, with a combined age of 67, started in Wales last week. Glenn Whelan (34) and Aiden McGeady (32) are still in the manager's thoughts and it would be no shock to see them back in the fold for next month's home games in the Nations League, the two matches which stand between O'Neill and dismissal.

The fact that O'Neill repeatedly bemoans the recent retirements of John O'Shea, Wes Hoolahan and Daryl Murphy shows there is a crisis there. By rights, Ward, Walters and Whelan would have joined their compatriots in retiring after the humiliation by Denmark. No one could doubt their commitment to the national cause over the years, but it was time for fresh blood.

O'Neill made that personal in terms of the left-back role which Ward has practically owned since 2011: for the series of friendly games over the summer he opted to leave Ward at home and said the challenge for young pretenders such as Greg Cunningham, Derrick Wiliams and Enda Stevens to show they could take over from Ward. "It gives me a chance to look at someone else in the left-back role," O'Neill said in the summer.

Come September and the first qualifier and Ward is back in the starting XI. Even after his part in the poor defensive displays against Denmark and Wales, O'Neill sees no other options.

Ward and Whelan are two of the most-maligned Ireland internationals of the last decade, the ones picked on by certain blinkered pundits no matter how they play.

Jeff Hendrick, who has been consistently anonymous in the Ireland jersey since Euro 2016, gets a free pass but Whelan gets abuse. It took a former international, Stephen Hunt, to note what impact the absence of Whelan has on this team.

"Can people appreciate Glenn Whelan now? When he plays, he is constantly looking over his shoulder for danger and thinking of the team first and foremost rather than himself," Hunt noted in his Sunday Independent column.

"It's never pretty, but it is very important work. Jeff Hendrick and Conor Hourihane are nice footballers, but they are not ruthless. I was no Ryan Giggs but I was always good at my job and Whelan is the same. He did his job effectively for the team and never once complained about his role."

Has Hourihane, seven years younger than Whelan, done anything in an Ireland jersey to show he's a better option?

Before Cardiff, Walters had not played a single minute of club football since January. And yet, days away from his 35th birthday, he is picked to lead the line against a vibrant and young Welsh defence.

It's all very well to demand that the old guard have to get off the stage. Jack Charlton could demean Brady because he had a handy replacement (Andy Townsend) ready and waiting.

But if none of those who are next in line are good enough to do the job, this Irish team will remain stuck in a moment they can't get out of.


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