Tuesday 20 March 2018

David Kelly: Players must seize chance to break out of the shackles

Some of Ireland's biggest stars have work to do if they are to play a part in post-Trapattoni era, writes David Kelly

Republic of Ireland's John O'Shea
Republic of Ireland's John O'Shea
David Kelly

David Kelly

It's not quite Paris play-off territory, but tonight there is an opportunity for Ireland's players to shed strait-jacketed, systems-led football and express sufficient character to offer some faith in their future.

Marc Wilson's struggle to express his frustration with Ireland's tactics on Sunday morning was appropriate; his is an inarticulacy that has more often than not suffocated his colleagues on the field.

Few have challenged the autocracy of a manager who is now in lame duck territory; to his credit, the admirable Glenn Whelan was the first to raise the issue three years ago when it was neither popular nor profitable to do so.

Even at Stoke, until this season the Premier League's modern-day descendants of Wimbledon's 'Crazy Gang', Whelan has always been afforded greater licence to express his relatively limited skills than when on Ireland duty.

Now that one managerial reign enters the rear-view mirror, his team-mates can belatedly, one hopes, express themselves, particularly as this is a match that Austria need to win, so it should be a flowing game.

For only they can counter the widely held canard, spouted from every pub stool in the land, that insists Ireland "do not have the players".

They do; they just need to be deployed cleverly and invested with faith and encouragement.

Most of the best emerging crop – Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy, Wilson, James McClean – have filtered though despite, and not because of, the manager.

Others are raging against the dying of the light and it remains to be seen whether they have the spirit to renew themselves for an enlightened change of regime, having clung so rigidly to the current one.

The men who have something to prove

Now 33, Keane's remorseless assault on shredding record books upon which his name is already writ large would appear to show little sign of abating, if his most recent pronouncements are taken at face value.

An arch-defender of Ireland's most recent two managers to an almost zealously obsequious degree – albeit he was unusually distant towards the end of Brian Kerr's reign – his determination to prolong his international career has been mostly predicated upon personal aims.

That is not to say that he is not a team player – simply that while his voracious appetite for scoring continues, and while nobody deigns to sufficiently challenge his eminence, then he will continue to represent his country.

That undying loyalty has been reciprocated by his manager, who has been so well aware that to change his tactical approach would probably require a ditching of his captain.

It is a gamble that, quite understandably in many respects, the Italian has not been willing to take.

A new manager will have to decide whether he can sacrifice Keane's goals, and the consequent paucity from other striking options, with a different formation that allows the team, particularly in midfield, to compete more favourably in the Euro 2016 qualifiers.

Keane has said that he will play for Ireland as long as the manager selects him. Will he stay true to his word or would he prefer to exit before the choice is made for him?

Richard Dunne

Having completed a Lazarus-like recovery from the trio of operations that threatened to guillotine his career at the highest level, any incoming manager will have to decide whether it is worth pursuing the Tallaght man as a viable option in the centre of his defence.

There is a decent chance that the player may have already made that decision for him. Nobody will ever know how close Dunne was to severing his links with the Irish team after the personal and collective misery that was Euro 2012, but he was certainly closer to quitting than most may have adjudged.

One of the few players who has dared to openly question the manager's tactics, Dunne hinted at retirement after the Euros when suggesting it might be "better that the younger players come through".

Less than 14 months later, his words appear to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for a player who will later this month turn 34.

John O'Shea

For all his omnipresence since unluckily missing out on the 2002 World Cup, O'Shea has long since failed to utterly convince at the highest level of the international game.

The marauding figure that once dared to trample all over a French midfield in Paris is light years away from the player who is now regularly seen hoofing the ball aimlessly with all the guile of a parks player.

With Ciaran Clark emerging as a defender of genuine Premier League promise, one would hope for a steady level of consistency from a prospective senior partner.

However, O'Shea has never demonstrated that he can be relied upon to deliver in this regard; last Friday's error-ridden display, only occasionally salvaged by hurried retribution, was a perfect example of the dilemma.

With doubts now surrounding his club career under the eccentric Paolo di Canio, an Italian who seems less convinced than his veteran compatriot of O'Shea's qualities, these are pivotal times for the Waterford man.

If he truly wants to be in the vanguard of an Irish resuscitation under a new manager, he must demonstrate he is capable of delivering with an authority which one presumed would by now have become a permanent trademark.

James McCarthy

McCarthy heads the young list of pretenders who have yet to fully convince – a change of management will unearth whether the likes of McCarthy, Coleman, Wilson et al are the real deal.

It is impossible to guess whether Trapattoni would have ferried McCarthy to Euro 2012 had his family circumstances been any different; the manager's protestations that he would have done always seemed a little forced.

In the year since then, McCarthy has become the most expensive Scottish-born player of all time, and Irish football's third most lucrative transfer ever, yet in the green of his chosen Ireland he has only really delivered one performance worthy of such description.

After bossing the midfield in Stockholm, his palpable failure to even come close to replicating that performance in the return leg can only be minimally excused by the poverty of the team's rigidly enforced tactics.

McCarthy still has the chance to anchor himself as the strong, defiant personality a new Irish team populated with good ball players will seek to erect from the ashes of this campaign.

The suspicion remains that he can only do so as part of a three-man midfield, as evidenced by his club career, and that is something that can only happen with a change of system.

Not necessarily something that will happen on the watch of Martin O'Neill, it must be noted.

Shane Long

Long's goalscoring record in competitive matches – only one goal against Russia – continues to undermine all the folksy guff that normally attaches itself to him.

Everyone who knows him appreciates his honesty, commitment and unstoppable work rate – however, it is the more nagging question of the quality that he can deliver which is more urgently relevant.

A new manager may decide to take a punt on the hitherto inconsistently delivered promise of Anthony Stokes, especially as the reborn (again) Celtic player will have had a year in the Champions League to buttress his claims.

Jonathan Walters, too, who can boast a better goalscoring rate in competitive matches than Long, will also seek to advance his claims more strongly and, should he eventually emerge from his stunning slump, Kevin Doyle could also be rehabilitated once again.

Long, whose relationship at West Brom cannot but have been strained by the recent deadline day farce, is one of a clutch of Ireland players seeking to prove themselves.

The next Ireland manager may remain unknown. But, whatever his identity, you can be sure he is watching these players' every move.

Tonight they will all be playing for their future Ireland careers.

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