Tuesday 16 January 2018

Daniel McDonnell: Martin O'Neill has attempted to shuffle a dwindling pack of cards

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Calls for a debate about the state of Irish football tend to grow louder in the aftermath of every disappointing international result.

The reality is that a broader discussion about the shrinking talent pool is a matter of urgency regardless of how the Euro 2016 campaign winds up.

If Martin O'Neill's side had managed to eke out a win over Scotland on Saturday, players and staff would have headed into the summer with smiles on their faces. But portraying that outcome as a picture of health would have required the papering over of cracks.

Do Ireland have the players? This is a recurring question. They had a deeper reservoir of talent three years ago because the star players that remain in the panel had fewer miles on the clock when Giovanni Trapattoni's final campaign trickled towards a miserable conclusion.


That's why it is easy to have sympathy for O'Neill in his current position, even if he cannot escape criticism if the qualifying tilt for the 24-team European Championships ends in failure.

Inferior squads look well on course to make it to France at this stage, albeit from kinder groups than the tricky pool which Ireland landed.

What the likes of Iceland and Northern Ireland have is a defined game- plan and, crucially, a youthful veneer that has allowed them to build on progress they made in their last campaign.

O'Neill is still engaged in the process of trying to figure out what his best team is having used the four competitive games in the autumn to draw conclusions.

Leaving aside the stroll past Gibraltar, he has sprung a surprise in each of the five testing games to date; Stephen Quinn in Tbilisi, Aiden McGeady in the hole in Germany, leaving out Robbie Keane in Scotland, starting Robbie Brady at left full at home to Poland and then operating without wingers last Saturday and sending for Jeff Hendrick and Daryl Murphy to bulk up the spine.

It is fair to say those experiments have led to mixed results. O'Neill has been accused of conservatism, yet one notable trend has been his determination to advance the cause of Brady and Hendrick - the two youngest members of his squad until Derby's Cyrus Christie was drafted in as a back-up right full for Seamus Coleman.

They will start next season in the Championship unless bigger clubs produce their chequebooks over the summer. It means that, as it stands, there will be no Irish-born player under the age of 25 kicking off the 2015/'16 Premier League campaign as a first-team squad member.

James McCarthy and Watford pair Tommie Hoban and Sean Murray were produced by the system across the water. Jack Grealish, who still qualifies for the moment, could go elsewhere because he wasn't produced by Irish structures.

Harry Arter, 26 in December, is a contender to make waves at the highest level with Bournemouth and O'Neill is keen to integrate him into his plans. He cannot be blamed for the absence of youthful alternatives.

His problem areas upon his appointment were clear. With Richard Dunne at the end of the road, he focused on building a central defensive partnership between John O'Shea and Marc Wilson which has proved to be quite successful after a few hiccups.

Left full is a long-term problem position and, eventually, he realised that it was the best way to accommodate Brady in his plans. This is an experiment worth persevering with and O'Neill should be commended for going with it.

Trapattoni's continued exclusion of Hoolahan was baffling and, at 33, this regime has attempted to finally give the playmaker a prominent role in his country's plans.

That's why it was such a shock that he was sacrificed for the final quarter of the Scotland match in order to go back to basics and hit and hope.

O'Neill was keen to get the clinical Keane on the pitch, having gone where Trapattoni wouldn't go by dropping him for certain fixtures where it became apparent that the foremost attacker needed to be a physical option.

With Jon Walters rotating between roles, Daryl Murphy has come back into contention on account of an amazing season.

The 32-year-old finished as the Championship's top scorer, and that deserved recognition. He outperformed Shane Long against England and that influenced the big call.

More pertinently, there's nobody else knocking on the door. Simon Cox and Conor Sammon have dropped off the radar and Kevin Doyle is in America. Anthony Stokes is stuck in neutral again, while Aberdeen's Adam Rooney played himself into the long list without making the final cut.

Never mind the Premier League; there's no young sharpshooter making waves in the Championship. QPR duo Reece Grego-Cox and Ryan Manning can jump up the queue next term if they're entrusted with responsibility by Chris Ramsey but they're not going to be ready for this cycle.

Ultimately, O'Neill has attempted to shuffle a dwindling pack of cards with varying levels of joy. The selection gambles suggest he is unsure how to deal with the weaknesses that he has identified.

Ireland do have good players, but not enough to cope with a loss of form or untimely injuries. O'Neill's struggle to identify a coherent plan is a by-product of a long-term failure to grow a new generation.

Irish Independent

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