Sunday 18 February 2018

Forget Holland warm-up, battle for spot in Martin O'Neill's Euros squad the only game in town

Robbie Keane. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Robbie Keane. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It is 12 years since Ireland spoiled Holland's pre-Euro 2004 going away party by scoring a shock win in Amsterdam with Robbie Keane's strike silencing 45,000 locals.

Three years earlier, Mick McCarthy took great pleasure in knocking Louis van Gaal's side out of the World Cup picture because he'd learned they had already reserved flights and hotels.

The dynamic in 2016 is strangely different. Holland arrived in Dublin last night in the unusual role as warm-up act for a host that is preparing to depart for next month's finals in France.

If the visiting delegation strikes up a discussion with their hosts, there will be a painful reminder of their failure. Martin O'Neill's side are booked into Versailles for the duration of their French stay, a luxury base that the Dutch had originally reserved as they fully expected to be part of the 24-team finals. The FAI made their move when it suddenly arrived back on the market.

Irish business this week has been so focused on the make-up of O'Neill's 23-man squad that the importance of a positive result in the friendly matches has barely warranted a mention.

Holland are a wounded animal on a rebuilding mission which makes them a tough opponent. Four years ago, Bosnia stopped just short of bringing a bucket and spade onto the pitch for their Dublin date.

The determined Dutch surprised England at Wembley in March with a depleted squad and their focus now is on building towards the next campaign and restoring their battered reputation.

Manager Danny Blind is expected to field a young team that will seek creativity from Manchester United's misfiring Memphis Depay, in-demand AZ Alkmaar attacker Vincent Janssen, Roma midfielder Kevin Strootman and Newcastle's Georginio Wijnaldum. They are a formidable opponent that the bookies have priced as favourites to win the fixture.


With O'Neill minding James McCarthy and Ciaran Clark and keen to experiment at some stage with a view to getting players that really need minutes on the pitch, it wouldn't register as a massive disappointment if the Dutch succeeded in deflating the mood.

"I'd like us to be able to use the ball well if we can," said the 64-year-old, when asked what he hoped to achieve from the fixture.

"And, even though it's a friendly game, I'd like to win the game if we can and keep spirits pretty high as they are at the moment."

He did allude to starting with a strong side and then getting others involved later in the game but, as ever, he will keep the players guessing - as well as the public.

John O'Shea has been told he will start at centre-half and the expectation is that Harry Arter and David McGoldrick will feature at some stage as they seek to make a late run into the squad picture.

But he must balance the auditions with the need to give minutes to important players that have either been out of favour or out of action because of injury or the timing of their season. O'Shea is in for that reason and Seamus Coleman, Jeff Hendrick and Aiden McGeady are in that bracket. For O'Neill, it's a balancing act.

Shay Given is also in the equation with O'Neill non-committal on whether he will get the nod ahead of Darren Randolph - Dundalk's Gary Rogers might be invited to sit on the bench as a third 'keeper with David Forde and Keiren Westwood absent - but offering a strong endorsement of the Donegal man's presence around the camp.

If he lines out across this gathering, Given will become the longest-serving Irish international ever in terms of the distance between his first cap (1996) and last. But the clear inference from the manager's comments is that he also has non-playing value for the month ahead.

"When he looks back on his career, I'm sure he will be delighted with it really," he said. "He's been terrific for Ireland, and involved in some really major games and terrific at club level. A really fine player.

"Time doesn't stand still for people. You do get older in life, as I've found out, and players do go on a bit. I'd imagine this would be his final time (around the camp) and he's been excellent around the place.

"I'm not saying that's everything -it's not - but he's been a great help to the other 'keepers and really encouraging the whole way through. That helps. It doesn't mean your place is certain because you're good around the place."

O'Neill likes to joke about the fact that McGeady, another man with Donegal in his bloodline, isn't always the easiest character to have around when he's in a bad mood.

When it comes down to it, however, he quite enjoys that crabbiness and even managed to see the funny side in his early exit from a loan at Sheffield Wednesday which was supposed to finish up after tomorrow's play-off final.

In the Derry man's eyes, McGeady demonstrated his commitment to Ireland by pushing to get out to Everton in the first place. Darron Gibson might well suffer for staying put and specialising in cameo appearances.

"Aiden went out on January with the Euros in mind," he said. "He could have sat back and played the occasional game for Everton. At least he's made the effort to go out and play. He does have that ability to go past players and create something for you."

That will ensure his presence in Versailles. Arter is vying for a midfield place with Gibson, Stephen Quinn, Eunan O'Kane and David Meyler with the latter still with Hull for their Wembley date with Sheffield Wednesday.

McGoldrick is an alternative to Wes Hoolahan as a link man between midfield and attack and the extent of his involvement will be linked with how O'Neill chooses to use Shane Long and Jonathan Walters.

He may end up in an uncomfortable position where he is up against his club-mate Daryl Murphy for the final striking berth.

These are the sub-plots which are more likely to shape the post-mortem than the outcome of the main event.

Irish Independent

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