Chosen ones out to prove point in new Irish set-up
IT is a long time since an Ireland squad was announced solely via the medium of email. The selection of the panel for the November double-header with Latvia and Poland is a mere footnote to the drama of seismic changes at the top.
When the 'chosen ones' gather for their first training session under the stewardship of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane next Tuesday – 24 hours later than originally scheduled – the cameras will be trained on the positions of the manager and assistant. The players will slip under the radar, like pawns on a chessboard.
The fringe operators have no way of knowing that the new management team definitely wanted them there.
Noel King, the caretaker boss, put together the 27-man list as his last duty before returning to his day job as U-21 boss, a world where he need not worry about the attentions of the RTE panel.
Naturally, there has been a focus on the past dealings that Irish players have had with O'Neill and Keane. Some have had none at all; up and coming stars like Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy will be working with both of them for the first time, part of a generation that were kids when everything was kicking off in Saipan.
In September, McCarthy was one of the first to advocate the Corkman as a potential replacement for Giovanni Trapattoni and he is sure to benefit from his midfield expertise.
There are others who perhaps may be more fearful about their first face-to-face meeting with the No 2. Two men who fall into that category won't be around – injury has prevented Damien Delaney from building on his competitive debut last month, while Paul McShane is dropped, despite a good spell at Hull.
Others who've had run-ins with Keane along the way will be present; Jon Walters, Aiden McGeady and Anthony Stokes have, to varying degrees, articulated quibbles with either the managerial behaviour or punditry style of the polarising 42-year-old.
Crucially, though, there are no players with any serious reason to have a gripe with O'Neill, the man who will ultimately have the power to make them or break them.
Keiren Westwood is the only one with an obvious negative memory. He was not pleased by his No 2 status at Sunderland behind Simon Mignolet when the Derryman was in charge and miffed when he was unable to go on loan. His decision to pull-out of last month's concluding World Cup qualifiers didn't appear to endear Westwood to goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly, but that matters little now as Seamus McDonagh is set to assume that role from Kelly in O'Neill's team.
The Black Cats 'keeper did miss his club's League Cup joust with Southampton last night as he's still feeling the effects of a McShane challenge in the Premier League loss at Hull, yet this regime change presents him with a chance to reclaim the jersey from David Forde, although he's got work to do after the Millwall man's excellence in Cologne.
O'Neill will know well how his counterparts in England view these windows and he was prepared for the inevitability of losing some bodies. Already, the FAI have agreed with QPR's request to rest Richard Dunne. The terms of the deal that he signed with Harry Redknapp's charges in the summer included the proviso that they could tear up his contract if he suffered a recurrence of the groin problem that kept the 34-year-old on the sidelines for the duration of last season.
In the circumstances, it makes sense for the veteran to sit out these fixtures, although it opens up a debate about where he'll stand in the next campaign.
Ciaran Clark, given his Villa debut by O'Neill and strongly encouraged to declare for Ireland by Dunne, can start off on the right foot next week, next to John O'Shea – a player that both O'Neill and Keane know well.
Question marks may arise over the participation of the two Robbies. Brady, the Hull midfielder, is on the comeback trail from a hernia operation and the FAI are conscious that the Tigers may wish for the 21-year-old to take it easy. His club colleague David Meyler, a huge admirer of Keane, is among those hoping for withdrawals so they can stake a claim.
As for Robbie Keane, Ireland's record goalscorer, the FAI are also bracing themselves for a request from LA Galaxy if they come through the second leg of their Western Conference semi-final with Real Salt Lake tonight. Keane's side lead 1-0 from the first meeting and should they progress to the Conference final – which is effectively the semi-final of the overall MLS championship – the Ireland fixtures will fall between the two legs of the penultimate stage.
Bruce Arena tried and failed to pull Keane out of the Kazakhstan game, but he will have a stronger case with the MLS season further advanced and nothing at stake in Dublin or Poznan.
The main changes to King's squad are in the defensive area with recalls for Stephen Ward and Alex Pearce. Ward, who last appeared against Greece a year ago, fell out of favour with Trap and has benefited from a change of scenery at Brighton. Pearce scored a goal in his sole Irish appearance – the dismissal of Oman in September 2012 – but the papers only recently came through to allow the Reading centre-half represent Ireland competitively after lining out for Scotland at underage level.
Rob Elliot, the Newcastle reserve 'keeper, is retained at the expense of Birmingham's Darren Randolph. In another week, that might have attracted comment, a damning indictment of how hard it is to find talking points in your average November friendly period.
This year, there will be no such difficulty.
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