Thursday 22 February 2018

Fringe benefits in short supply as Euros loom

Aberdeen's Johnny Hayes. Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
Aberdeen's Johnny Hayes. Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It's time to spare a thought for the provisionals. Martin O'Neill's announcement of a 40-man panel is always accompanied by the significant asterisk that it will be chopped to a smaller number before the hotel rooms are designated.

Towards the end of his press duties yesterday, he confirmed that 30 was the rough figure he had in mind for the forthcoming Dublin friendlies with Switzerland and Slovakia, which means that only a spate of injuries will prevent an unlucky contingent from being told not to bother packing their bags next weekend.

It means that Chris Forrester, Johnny Hayes, Matt Doherty and Stephen Gleeson have another hurdle to cross before their first call from O'Neill is formally confirmed. The uncapped Eunan O'Kane knows that it can be a slow process.

At least Jack Byrne and Alan Browne, the U-21 squad members who were left off the list because they will only join in with training after Noel King's side play Italy, can say for certain they will get to meet and greet.

The consistent losers from the trimming down process are a small bunch of players with a number of caps already, for whom call-ups no longer offer a novelty value.

By now, they have learned not to read too much into featuring on the long list because chances are they will be absent from the trimmed version. Paul Green, Simon Cox, Anthony Pilkington and Anthony Stokes have been there and done that.

Stokes still has the ability to generate a stir, albeit for the wrong reasons until his loan move to Hibernian finally got him back on a pitch.

His last Irish outing was the friendly with USA in November 2014 and the 27-year-old may struggle to see the funny side of O'Neill's light hearted take on the issues that have stalled his career.

"It's important that he's back playing again," said O'Neill, "Anthony won't mind me saying 'Anthony is Anthony' - he's a talented player and I would say possibly (one of the) three laziest players I've ever seen. Lazily talented or talented lazily. I'm never sure which way it goes.

"Stokesie has got ability," he continued, with a smile. "He has been with me in a lot of squads before he had the altercation with Elvis." (his trial in relation to the alleged assault of an Elvis impersonator has been adjourned until November).

"I love him to death, he is a great character. Seriously, I'm not saying when I pare down the squad that he is going to make it but at least he is back playing again.

"A wee bit like Aiden McGeady, Stokes is definitely one of those players who needs to play. Stokesie will not be happy now, I know this. You have ruined my relationship with him. Sorry, I have ruined my relationship with him!"

Pilkington, meanwhile, is back in vogue at Cardiff yet his Irish ambitions have been snookered by injuries.

"If Seamus Coleman came back and said I can't train Tuesday and Wednesday but I'll be fit for Saturday, Seamus Coleman's history would tell me what he can do. I can't afford for Anthony not to train for three days here," O'Neill stressed.

In short, Pilkington has to make his point on the pitch or else he is in trouble. This extends to the unavailable David McGoldrick, who is regarded highly by O'Neill, but is in real bother with an eye to France because of his injury woe at Ipswich.

Shay Given is in a different boat because he is already tried and trusted at this level.

There are other individuals hovering around the cut mark that have cause for concern. O'Neill acknowledged that the frequency with which Sheffield Wednesday keeper Keiren Westwood has pulled out of squads has harmed his prospects. "I've never doubted Westwood's talent," he said. "You need a bit of reliability."

Senior players with a heavy schedule and a secure spot may well report for duty with the option of sitting out the Aviva Stadium action.


Robbie Keane could stay in America, although history suggests he would make the flight if the ball was in his court. Kevin Doyle, who is now based in the MLS with Colorado Rapids, is in another category.

"He's been out of the limelight," said O'Neill. "I seem to always bring him into squads but he would be the one that seemed to be left out.

"I wouldn't really want to bring someone a long, long distance if I can't guarantee him some playing time but we do have the two games and I think Kevin would welcome that because if he has a chance of going to France, he would need to play in some of these games."

Harry Arter and Alan Judge are certainties to be involved once fit. Competition in midfield is intense.

Hayes (28) and Gleeson (27) are also in the late developer bracket and have impressed for Aberdeen and Birmingham respectively.

O'Neill received a voicemail from Peterborough director of football Barry Fry telling him how well Forrester (23) has adapted since moving to League One from St Patrick's Athletic last August.

The Dubliner is a technical wizard and O'Neill expects U-21 star Byrne, who has shone for Dutch side Cambuur on loan from Manchester City, to tick that box in training too.

"I can imagine the little boy Byrne wanting to get on the ball and do things," he said.

His only problem could be finding space in a crowd of bodies.

Irish Independent

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