| 18.2°C Dublin

Dream team get a reality check


Ireland manager Martin O'Neill signs an autograph for Lee Park, aged 11, from Castleconnell, Limerick, during a visit to the Markets Field Project

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill signs an autograph for Lee Park, aged 11, from Castleconnell, Limerick, during a visit to the Markets Field Project

Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill signs an autograph for Lee Park, aged 11, from Castleconnell, Limerick, during a visit to the Markets Field Project

Nothing much to see here. The winter itinerary of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane had dropped a strong hint that the first formal squad announcement of the new era would be short on surprises.

Put simply, it has proved easier for the duo to learn more about the nucleus of the group they inherited than unearth a raft of new options.

"I can't transfer players," stated O'Neill, with a glance to the names on his sheet of paper. "It might be interesting to see what sort of squad we might have in a year's time but at the minute, this is what I have."

Shay Given and Stephen Ireland, a pair who currently sit under the heading of former internationals, were the only plausible wildcard possibilities for Wednesday week's friendly with Serbia, and it emerged that O'Neill had spoken with both before he revealed his provisional 29-man list to the assembled crowd in Limerick.

They were not on the page, however, and it appears they have to prove something to the Derry man in the club sphere before they can resume their international careers.


With Given, the situation is relatively straightforward. O'Neill effectively acknowledged that if he chose to bring the Donegal native back, he would have to be certain that he was his No 1 option. Considering that the successful loan stint at Middlesbrough ends this weekend – against the veteran's wishes – O'Neill wants to see the 37-year-old find stability this summer rather than embarking on another season as an unwanted figure in the background at Aston Villa.

"Let's just say by September he has found a club and is going brilliantly," O'Neill explained. "It would be remiss of me not to go and see if he is the Shay Given of a couple of years ago, and could he step in and be the best goalkeeper we had at that particular time. I think he wants to get himself a club in the summer and get involved."

The case of the former Villa midfielder Ireland is, as ever, lathered in provisos. O'Neill spoke at length on the 27-year-old, confirming that a face-to-face chat will be necessary before reaching a definitive conclusion, with a phone call their only contact to date.

His lack of urgency is explained by his admission that the enigmatic character would struggle to dislodge the current Irish midfielders; his last Premier League start for Stoke came on December 29. Even if he is ready to place aside the personal reasons for his seven-year exile, Ireland must demonstrate that he will strengthen the group, especially as his permanent move to the Britannia Stadium is a short-term arrangement.

"He's actually out of contract at the end of the season," said O'Neill. "And he hasn't had much game time.

"At the minute, would he be in the side in front of (James) McCarthy? There's a fairly decent chance he wouldn't be.

"Mark Hughes, for whatever reason, has decided that Glenn Whelan plays in front of him at this minute. There's two elements to it. I don't want to spend my life saying to players 'please come back' if (a) they don't really want to come back and (b) might not actually be up to it.

"Now, the Stephen Ireland of a couple of seasons ago, we wouldn't have a problem with but time moves on. He can come into that category again and I think he feels that.

"I am not too bothered about the political side. I want a squad that I feel are actually capable of beating the opposition. If some players say, 'Listen, I want to let bygones be bygones' then great. I get the impression that might be the case but I don't want to expand on that until I have the conversation."

Come the summer, the picture will be clearer. Yet it remains to be seen if any other possibilities will emerge from the woodwork in the meantime. The exploitation of the eligibility rules is a less than straightforward process. There are some players he would like to throw their lot in with Ireland that are non-committal or uninterested, while others mentioned would never become a part of his plans even if they were desperate, although he declined to divulge specific names.

"There are one or two names bandied about that I would say 'Yeah' and there are one or two names that I wouldn't have given a prayer to. I wouldn't have put them in anybody's squad," he said.

Patrick Bamford, on loan at Derby from Chelsea and a recent England U-21 debutant, is an emerging talent that O'Neill has travelled to see. He hasn't given up hope on the 20-year-old, without giving the impression that he anticipates a change of heart from the striker in the short term.

David McGoldrick, a revelation for Ipswich this term, is very keen to come on board but sustained an injury last weekend with the Irish supremo in attendance.

O'Neill was keen to stress that he didn't just descend upon Portman Road for the sake of seeing one player, and that point was illustrated by the recall for Daryl Murphy after six years on the sidelines.

With Robbie Keane allowed to stay in America and prepare for the start of his season with LA Galaxy, space was left in the forward department, with both Murphy and Nottingham Forest's Simon Cox welcomed back.

Damien Delaney, Richard Keogh and David Meyler, of Crystal Palace, Derby and Hull respectively, enter the discussion after being absent in November for various reasons.

O'Neill has watched Delaney regularly. "He is playing at the top level and showing a lot of enthusiasm," he stressed.

When the time comes to cut this list down to 23, a clearer picture will develop of his preferences and, ultimately, while the general cast remains the same, the most interesting aspect of the regime change will be the identity and approach of his starting XI.

November hinted at a new way, particularly a prominent role for Wes Hoolahan, although he has spent a considerable period since then at war with his standing at Norwich.

O'Neill sidestepped the finer points of that dispute, noting that it would be unrealistic to aim for a scenario where every single one of his favoured troops was a regular at club level.

In that context, January moves for messrs McGeady, Doyle and Long were most welcome. Hoolahan wasn't so lucky.

"There are certain players I will have to rely on during the next 18 months that maybe may not have played in three or four weeks," O'Neill cautioned. "That's going to be the case."

Just like the search for fresh blood, there are constraints which come with the job description. For the dream team, the early steps have provided a jarring dose of reality.

Irish Independent