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Whelan: We've upped our game

STOKE ace says improved club form of Irish tees side up nicely to tackle Slovaks.

TRANSFER deadline day. A day when the boys from Sky Sports News get so worked up they appear to be on the verge of explosion.

Thankfully, there will be little or no Irish involvement in the madness of last-day deals when the window closes tomorrow night and David Bobin, Brian Swanson and the lads look up to Big Ben in awe, as most of the moves involving our players abroad have already happened.

No less than 65 Irish players moved clubs since the end of last season, but of relevance to this week and the tests ahead for Ireland is that seven players who are likely to start, or at least be involved, against Slovakia on Friday night have moved clubs over the summer (Shay Given, John O'Shea, Kevin Kilbane, Sean St Ledger, Keith Andrews, Shane Long and Robbie Keane), with another three squad members (Keiren Westwood, Darren O'Dea and Keith Treacy) also finding new employment.

Of course, it's good news that Given, Keane, Andrews and O'Shea should get more club football this season after spending so much of last term on the bench or out in the cold, but even more welcome is the fact that others – especially Richard Dunne, Glenn Whelan, Stephen Hunt and Stephen Ward – have started the new campaign as key first-team players with their clubs and not bench-warmers.

For Whelan, it's especially welcome, as he's already played seven games for Stoke this season and the 27-year-old feels that this bout of good form from Ireland's players at club level has teed up Trapattoni's side for the vital battles ahead in the Euro 2012 qualifiers.

“I think that a lot of us are doing well with our clubs now,” said Whelan.

“For myself, it's been a case of up and down at Stoke in the last while. I'd be in the team and then I was out of the picture for a bit, but I have had a good run in the team now and that's reflected in my form.

“If you're in and out of the team your form can dip but when you play every week your fitness and your sharpness are at a good level.

“So it's good for Ireland that lads like myself, John O'Shea, Shay Given and Hunty are getting games and doing

well for their clubs. Shay and John have moved clubs and done really well. I hope that shows in the match on Friday.”

A taste of European football, in the shape of the Europa League qualifiers with Stoke, has sharpened the edges on Whelan's game, the Dubliner even scoring his first goal in Europe in last week's win over FC Thun.

“I wouldn't say I was banging in the goals for Stoke, it was just the one last week, but it was still nice to see it go in,” he admits.

“I think playing those matches in the Europa League qualifiers has helped me. Having competitive games early on is more of a help than pre-season friendlies, knowing that they meant something, we needed to win them and try to get through, and thankfully now we're in the group stages.”

The group phase of the Europa League has yet to start, but we're now at the business end of the Euro 2012 qualifiers, with a week ahead that will define the future of this Irish team and their manager.

Failure to land four points in the next two games will see Ireland struggle to even make the play-offs, while two wins could put us within reaching distance of a feat that's eluded an Irish team since Euro ’88 – winning a qualifying group outright.

“We have done well over the last few games, we're unbeaten and have conceded very few goals, that breeds confidence,” says Whelan.

“Slovakia are a good side, we know that from the game out there. We were a bit disappointed to only come away from there with a point. If Robbie had put the penalty away it would have been a different game. It was a big improvement from the performance at home to Russia a few days earlier and it's a good sign that we were disappointed to only get a draw. They are a big, physical side. When we played out there I was marking a lad who was about six-foot-five, and I'm one of the smallest players in our side.”

Whelan already bears the scars of battle this season – a nasty-looking cut on his lip a souvenir of Sunday's Premier League action.

“It happened to me on Sunday, the big centre forward from West Brom, Tchoyi, caught me in the first minute. I needed to get three stitches in it, it was a bit on the sore side but I didn't cry,” he jokes.

“And it certain won't keep me out of this game on Friday. Nothing would stop me from playing on Friday.”