Saturday 21 April 2018

Expect the unexpected as Martin O'Neill ponders the final four spots in his 23-man squad

Martin O'Neill may create a new generation of Gary Waddocks with his squad for Euro 2016 - and his loyalty to Aiden McGeady is sure to be severely tested

'O’Neill is breaking with the protocol of all his predecessors by keeping in as many as 35 players so close to the deadline.' Photo: Sportsfile
'O’Neill is breaking with the protocol of all his predecessors by keeping in as many as 35 players so close to the deadline.' Photo: Sportsfile

Miguel Delaney

If there is one trait that characterises Ireland's qualification for Euro 2016, it is Martin O'Neill's capacity for suddenly springing a surprise when all seemed to be winding towards the familiarly inevitable. It happened with some of his decisions in big games, it happened with the key results against Germany, and it might now happen with his final 23-man squad.

Those close to the Irish set-up say O'Neill really likes Ipswich Town's David McGoldrick as an option, even more than he has publicly stated. There is a growing feeling the 28-year-old has a chance of being the surprise inclusion when the squad is named next Saturday.

That may seem a bigger surprise than usual given that McGoldrick got the last of his two caps almost a year ago - in the 0-0 home draw with England - but O'Neill has apparently long wanted to have a proper look at him, only for injury setbacks this season to intervene. After missing the first three months of 2016, McGoldrick has now made eight appearances since the start of April, and scored in his last two games. He could yet be in France. Much will depend on the fitness of clubmate Daryl Murphy, since O'Neill wants to maintain a particular variety to his forward options. Kevin Doyle has also admirably worked his way back into contention from almost nowhere, and that is all the more impressive given that "almost nowhere" is a quip one figure jokingly made about MLS.

Either way, the forward positions will offer the most debate, and that fits with the recent private comment from one senior staff figure who told a friend "21 of the 23 are picked". The wonder is where the remaining open space is, because there are more than two remaining questions about the squad.

Part of that is down to O'Neill breaking with the protocol of all his predecessors and keeping in as many as 35 players so close to the deadline. It could mean there are a few Gary Waddocks this time. The former QPR midfielder's last-minute jettisoning from the Italia '90 squad has been brought up ahead of every tournament since then, because it is really one of the only stories from Ireland's six qualifications where a player could justifiably feel aggrieved to be left out. Before that, the story goes that Steve Staunton and Mark Kelly were so early into their careers in 1988 that they were delighted just to be loaned Jack Charlton's car to travel around in, as the main squad went off to Germany without them. In the years after Waddock, Charlton had to draft in new players like Jason McAteer for the USA 94 squad, a 22-year-old Colin Healy was Roy Keane's infamous stand-by in Saipan, and James McCarthy's difficult personal situation with an ill father meant Giovanni Trapattoni's decision required much less thought in 2012.

McCarthy will finally get a taste of a tournament now, along with Séamus Coleman, who also missed out four years ago. They are among 19 certainties, or near certainties, in O'Neill's squad, who also include: Darren Randolph, Shay Given, Keiren Westwood, Cyrus Christie, Ciaran Clark, Richard Keogh, Stephen Ward, John O'Shea, James McClean, Glenn Whelan, Jeff Hendrick, Harry Arter, Wes Hoolahan, Shane Long, Robbie Brady, Jon Walters and Robbie Keane.

After that is when it gets a bit more complicated, and means O'Neill has more difficult decisions than any qualifying Irish manager since Charlton sacrificed Waddock for Alan McLoughlin. With four notional places after those 19 and every area likely to be bolstered once, the question is whether he will then go for a second extra defender, a second extra midfielder or a second extra attacker.

The unexpected McGoldrick interest complicates things further, but there is still no case as complicated as Aiden McGeady's.

Given how be brought the 30-year-old through at Celtic, O'Neill is almost the player's patron, and Ireland probably wouldn't even be at the Euros had it not been for McGeady's match-winning goals against Georgia way back at the start of the campaign. Does that mean he should be at Euro 2016 too? Outside of loyalty, it's hard to argue.

McGeady has at best offered two good performances since moving to Sheffield Wednesday on loan at the end of February, and was subsequently dropped. He was not on the bench for either of the play-off semi-final legs against Derby County and probably won't be in the squad for the final against Hull City on Saturday. If he can't get into a side near the top of the Championship, there are serious questions over whether he should be named in the 23 for France on the same day.

This will be the biggest test of O'Neill's loyalty, and may be bad news for McGeady, since most who have worked with the manager consider him ruthless in that regard. The question might be whether O'Neill thinks the player can still give the rare moments of creativity that elevate Ireland, especially since Eunan O'Kane is the only alternative that can come into the squad who offers anything like that. The caveat is that, just a few weeks ago, O'Neill conspicuously spoke of how McGeady needs regular football to offer those moments himself.

"He's one of those players, if he doesn't mind me saying, that needs to be sharp to be at his very best," the manager said. "When you're not playing regularly there's a tendency for that to drop off."

McGeady is not the only senior player to suffer a lack of playing-time recently, but the others are all because of injury. Unless they suffer serious setbacks, it seems inconceivable that Coleman or Jeff Hendrick will be left out.

Marc Wilson may be in slight danger, both because he has not played since January and the impressive form of Blackburn Rovers' Shane Duffy, but O'Neill is prepared to give the Stoke defender as much time as possible. Duffy arguably deserves a place among the eight defenders more than Stephen Ward, but the necessity for balance across the backline means the Burnley full-back will almost certainly go to France. If Wilson does go slightly unfit, though, O'Neill may be tempted to add Duffy as an extra defender for that extra security.

That is the kind of thing that could cause problems for McGeady or the substitute strikers. The unfortunate injury to Rob Elliot has probably absolved O'Neill of a tough decision in one area at least, as it might have otherwise meant leaving out the only other goalkeeper in the squad getting regular football and performing well: Keiren Westwood. To those at Sheffield Wednesday, it is astounding the 31-year-old is not Ireland's first-choice, but O'Neill - who managed Westwood at Sunderland - has previously alluded to disagreements over his commitment.

"Keiren has pulled out of a number of squads, not just in my time but I think he did it before. Therefore, naturally, it's a concern but I think it's something . . . you need a bit of reliability."

The words themselves are an indication of the hard line O'Neill can unexpectedly take. There is an argument Robbie Keane should be left out, since he barely has the energy to be effective in those cameos any more, but his off-pitch influence alone makes that unlikely. O'Neill wants the option of an extra target-man, so Murphy's fitness could dictate whether the 22nd and 23rd men are Doyle, McGoldrick, McGeady, O'Kane, a defender, or one of the array of hard-working-but-limited central midfielders, like Stephen Quinn or David Meyler.

It would be entirely in-keeping with this campaign, however, for O'Neill to spring one more surprise.

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