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McClean's wrist of fate adds to Ireland selection troubles

McClean absence leaves O'Neill with weakest squad in generation

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James McClean during Republic of Ireland squad training. Photo: Sportsfile

James McClean during Republic of Ireland squad training. Photo: Sportsfile

James McClean during Republic of Ireland squad training. Photo: Sportsfile

Ten years ago tomorrow, Giovanni Trapattoni went into battle with Ireland in a competitive game for the first time, against Georgia in a game played in Germany.

His biggest worry at the time was the lack of form, and game time, for his captain, Robbie Keane at Liverpool.

Trap was still able to call on Keane, though, one of seven Premier League players in his starting XI for that clash with Georgia, the others coming from the SPL (Aiden McGeady) and La Liga (Steve Finnan) and only two from the Championship (Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt).

As he checked into the team hotel in Wales last night, Martin O'Neill could only think of a scenario like that with envy. Only ten years ago and it seems like, truly, another era.

O'Neill's squad, already light in midfield with the absence of Declan Rice and Harry Arter, was reduced in numbers even further yesterday before departure as James McClean suffered a broken wrist in training, and he will be out for some time.

O'Neill has faced challenges before in terms of making do with limited personnel, like facing into a playoff (against Bosnia) minus his main goalkeeper.

But picking his midfield and attack for tomorrow's game in Cardiff is one of the biggest dilemmas this manager has faced.

In terms of an attacking threat, this has to be the most-weakened Ireland squad to face into a qualifier in at least two generations.

Experience

Of the 12 midfielders and forwards in the travelling Irish party, just one (Jeff Hendrick) is playing in the Premier League. Only two (Hendrick and Jon Walters) have scored in a competitive international. It's not so long ago that O'Neill could afford to leave a still-effective Kevin Doyle out of his squad.

Now, he'd offer up a limb for an attacking player with Doyle's experience and eye for goal. WRyan Giggs is only starting his career in international management tomorrow but the Wales game will be a very, very stiff test of O'Neill's ability to make do with what he has.

And as he absorbs the loss of McClean to injury, O'Neill may wonder if, after all, he could do with Harry Arter, and could have done more to have the Cardiff City player actually in Cardiff.

Who does he pick in midfield?

Players like Conor Hourihane, Alan Judge or Callum O'Dowda, three men unable to get into the starting XI in their clubs in England's second tier? David Meyler, struggling with a struggling club at the bottom of that division?

Alan Browne, Shaun Williams or Daryl Horgan, untested and unproven at this level?

And up front, where will the goals come from, as it's a big ask of Graham Burke, Aiden O'Brien and Callum Robinson to share the burden with Jon Walters?

O'Neill could try and find a role for Matt Doherty, a player who is bang in form with a confident-looking Wolves side, but a player about whom O'Neill has doubts and Doherty (unfairly so) has yet to convince the Ireland boss.

The loss of Rice makes it harder for O'Neill to go with a three-man defence as an option so he's almost certain to go with four at the back. And some form of midfield, O'Neill needing someone like Williams or O'Dowda to step up. Again, a big ask for relative rookies.

Tomorrow is the birth of the Nations League and a managerial debut for Ryan Giggs. O'Neill's career with Ireland won't be defined by what happens tomorrow night.

And the ongoing farce that is the Danish national team (no manager, no recognised stars and potentially a team made up of amateurs for Sunday's Nations League with Wales, a gimmie of three points for the Welsh already, adds to the confusion.

Given the bare nature of the squad, O'Neill could say that defeat would not be unexpected. But losing the first game of a new campaign would set the wrong tone for a new tournament.


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