Saturday 25 November 2017

Euro finals hopefuls seek Good Friday

Stephen Quinn and Shane Long (SPORTSFILE)
Stephen Quinn and Shane Long (SPORTSFILE)
Much of the discourse around this international gathering has focused on how the Swiss test and Tuesday's game with Slovakia – both of whom are also preparing for the Euros – will shape his final 23 for the summer
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It is entirely possible that the atmosphere at the Aviva Stadium tonight will be festive regardless of what happens on the pitch.

Martin O'Neill is aware that the local desire for a drink on Good Friday might well have contributed to the enthusiastic snapping up of tickets for a friendly encounter. Similar to the stereotypical overseas view that an Irish team's main attribute is fighting spirit, any frustration at the simplistic line of thought must be countered by the reality that there's a huge element of truth in it.

"If they're coming and fancying a quick sneaky pint then good luck to them," said O'Neill, "I might join them at half-time."

That was a harmless joke compared to an earlier quip about attractive and ugly Wags which unsurprisingly provoked outrage on social media. The fact that the subject of WAGS were brought up in the first place is evidence that the build-up to a major tournament will throw up a range of off-topic curveballs.

O'Neill's attempt at humour backfired, but the only lessons he wants to learn from this week are related to events on the park. He gives the distinct impression that he doesn't take the rest of the noise too seriously and people can take it or leave it.

He has a job to do which he is judged on. It's four months since the 64-year-old has paced the sideline and tonight's meeting with Switzerland will be a release from sitting powerless in the stands or watching a game on TV.


Much of the discourse around this international gathering has focused on how the Swiss test and Tuesday's game with Slovakia - both of whom are also preparing for the Euros - will shape his final 23 for the summer.

The other angle is determining whether anything that happens sways his mind towards the selection of his starting XI for the opener with Sweden in Stade de France on June 13. It's anticipated that Darren Randolph will get the gloves for this evening with Newcastle's Rob Elliot in line for an outing on Tuesday. Randolph is in pole position at the moment.

Robbie Keane's unavailability with a knee problem and Jon Walters' hamstring complaint paves the way for Shane Long to lead the line and he could be partnered by his good pal Kevin Doyle, who has to make a case for a spot on the plane to France.

Long knows he will be going but is determined to prove he is more than an impact option off the bench.

O'Neill has indicated that one uncapped player will be in his XI and Brentford's Alan Judge is a strong candidate. Blackburn centre-half Shane Duffy should win a second cap too with the staff impressed by how he was developed during their time in charge.

The manager has stressed that it would be unrealistic for some of the inexperienced members of his panel to be thinking about France.

"Let's be fair - the players who are coming in here have a bit to do," he asserted. "Everything would probably have to go pretty well for them individually."

However, he confirmed that Duffy is entitled to believe he's in the category of performers that can force themselves into the picture. "I think he should look at it like that himself, absolutely," he said.

In midfield, he has an abundance of options. Eunan O'Kane is waiting for a first cap while Stephen Gleeson wants to end a nine-year wait for his third. They may have to be patient with the trusted David Meyler due a start and Stephen Quinn (left) also in the picture.

O'Neill also has to weigh up what to do with Premier League regulars such as Seamus Coleman, Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy, John O'Shea Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan. They're match-sharp and their club managers would prefer a softer schedule; the Everton duo and Brady have suffered fitness issues at various stages this term.

"I do want to experiment with a few players," said O'Neill. "But I also want to be competitive and I'd like to just keep the momentum going as we don't have that many games left to the start of the Euros."

It's plausible that the Swiss will be faced by a stronger Irish selection than the Slovaks, although the caveat is that Walters and Keane are targeting involvement in the second leg of the double-header.

Representatives from Sweden, Belgium and Italy will be in attendance hoping to learn something yet O'Neill observed that the various protagonists are likely to trial ideas in this window that will have no impact on their modus operandi for June's serious business. The trained eye will have to deduce what is important.

Much as Switzerland are a formidable opponent with a laudable recent record in terms of making tournaments, the paying public will expect the green shirts to be on the front foot and as positive as they were against Bosnia.

The build-up to these affairs can drag because the implications are clouded by permutations.

Four years ago, it was the arrival of James McClean that prompted an extraordinary response from the crowd in an otherwise unremarkable meeting with the Czech Republic.

This time around, the 'outsiders' are older and a little wiser to the ways of the football world, although it will be understandable if they feel nerves as they board the bus this evening.

After all, it's up to them to make this Good Friday date a meaningful exercise.

Ireland v Switzerland, Live, Setanta Ireland, 7.45pm

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