Friday 16 March 2018

Provisional list delays O'Neill's hard decisions

Painful process of letting down Euro hopefuls will start next week

Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The hardest part of cutting down Ireland's squad for the European Championships will take place well away from the glare of the television cameras and rooms full of reporters.

Martin O'Neill will soon be the bearer of bad news for 11 members of the provisional 35-man panel for the friendly with Holland on May 27.

Oxford winger Callum O'Dowda, the surprise inclusion, is pencilled in to join the group for training and to gain experience, but that will be with a view to the longer term.

Other members of the long list revealed at Three's Dublin HQ will be contacted next week and told they won't be required for the final audition. "I'd rather see them face to face if I could," says the Ireland manager. "That will be tough on one or two of the players."


On Sunday week, a squad of somewhere between 28-30 will report for duty in Castleknock with a view to impressing in the Dutch encounter.

The morning afterwards, O'Neill intends to confirm his final 23 ahead of the training camp in Cork, although he does have the option to wait until after the May 31 encounter with Belarus.

"Knowing me, I may well wait until 10.50pm the night of the Belarus game," he said, with a half-smile. It won't be a laughing matter when the time comes around.

"This will be very difficult," he continued. "Really, really difficult because you might leave out one or two players who have had big moments for us here in matches. And every one of them has played a part in this."

O'Neill says he already knows the vast majority of the squad that will be travelling, injury permitting. That's an important caveat given the ailments - some big and some big small - that have afflicted members of his group over the past month. Stoke pair Shay Given and Marc Wilson appear to be top of the doubtful list at this juncture.

Wilson will see a specialist today in the hope that he will provide a positive diagnosis on a knee problem that has failed to heal in time for a Premier League return. Given made a short-lived comeback before his groin flared up.

"Marc was actually doing very well up until a couple of weeks ago and then suddenly he got injured again," said O'Neill. "Shay's fitness is a bit of a concern. I have to take three goalkeepers with me and the point was made that sometimes you might have to gamble on a bit of fitness. Sometimes you have to gamble on something else."

Two from Given, David Forde and Keiren Westwood will travel to offer cover for Darren Randolph. Westwood is a regular with the Sheffield Wednesday side that is involved in the Championship play-offs, and if they win their semi-final with Brighton then he won't be available until after the Dutch encounter. By then, Given will have demonstrated to management if he is fit to function.

Jon Walters and Robbie Keane have both undergone knee surgery, while Jeff Hendrick is on the comeback trail at Derby, Seamus Coleman's hamstring curtailed his involvement in Roberto Martinez's slow march to the inevitable with Everton and Daryl Murphy missed the conclusion of Ipswich's campaign - a development which allowed David McGoldrick to get a run in the side and put himself in the picture.

Question marks linger over his durability but O'Neill acknowledged that it's up to him and the staff to look out for telltale signs in the likely event that players insist they are in peak condition.

In an ideal world, an individual would put up his hand and acknowledge he is suffering. One factor in Ireland's 2012 nightmare was the number of key men operating below par.

"There has to be an element of trust," acknowledged the manager. "Some players will say 'yeah, I'm perfectly alright' when in actual fact the stats will suggest that they're not great.

"One or two players, if I know them well enough, I think I could take a risk on. But I really can't go in with quite a number of players who haven't played for some time, regardless of what they've done for the side in the last two years. But (if there are) some players saying 'I'm fit' when the evidence would suggest he's maybe not right - then that's something I'd have to take into consideration. Because it's their big chance and all players want to play in it."

Trust will be a big word when the group convene for the serious business. O'Neill has received regular updates about the logistics and is happy with the arrangements at the FAI's French base in Versailles, where the re-seeding of the training pitch is an aspect of preparations.

The security operation may restrict the players' ability to go for a wander about the locality, but their manager will have little sympathy for complaints about boredom and missing families because he will give his men ample opportunity to see their nearest and dearest before taking flight.

"They will get a chance after the weekend of the Dutch game," he stressed. "Then there will be another opportunity after we come back from the training camp in Fota Island to do that as well. When we go there, then sorry, it's the games. If we could make it through there will be a day when they will get a chance to see people.

"If something crops up - a family issue - then I will certainly allow a player to deal with it.

"But I don't really want three or four children running across my path and finding out they belong to somebody who has missed two goals against Sweden."

His honest view is that the spirit that exists in the group will make it easier to avoid cabin fever. After a build-up that will facilitate a balance between work and rest, he says the game face will have to be on when they arrive in the host country.

Watching Eden Hazard shine for Chelsea on Wednesday night was a valuable reminder.

"It's almost as if he's gearing himself up for the Euros," he said. "He's got that confidence and swagger back so he would be a definite concern."

Before that headache, he's got a few domestic issues to sort out.

Irish Independent

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