SEAN ST Ledger says that the players who didn't show up for Irish duty last summer must be regretting it now -- as he prepares for a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The Leicester defender is a loyal member of Giovanni Trapattoni's squad and reported for international action a year ago while carrying an injury. He stuck around rather than going on an early summer holiday and recovered in time to star in the June friendly win over Italy in Liege. This June, he will grace the one of the biggest stages, while some of those who missed out 12 months ago are out in the cold.
Marc Wilson was named in the team for the Carling Nations Cup clash with Northern Ireland, but was absent without explanation and never quite patched up his relationship with Trapattoni.
Anthony Stokes said he was too tired, while Caleb Folan pulled out through injury and then lined out for Colorado Rapids in the MLS during the same time frame.
Aston Villa's Ciaran Clark sat on the bench for his club 48 hours before the Northern Ireland game, and was subsequently withdrawn due to a sciatica problem. He hasn't lined out for Ireland since.
"There are people who didn't show up in the summer and if you look at the bigger picture, they wouldn't have thought that we'd be going to a European Championship and they're the ones who are missing out now," said St Ledger yesterday.
"That couple of weeks' sacrifice is nothing compared to what is about to happen this summer. This career doesn't last forever and I want to try and maximise it. We are lucky to do a job that we love. Sometimes you do need a break, but you get that break. The managers are sensible and can give you an extra couple of weeks, so I'll turn up every time (for Ireland)."
Playing for his country has kept St Ledger going through a turbulent period in his club career. An aborted move to Middlesbrough was followed by a dismal stint back at Preston. This season's big switch to Leicester has proved a mixed bag. He's been involved in half the club's games, nearly left in January after falling out of favour with Nigel Pearson, and then reclaimed his place only to lose it again.
Reports last week suggested he would leave in the summer, but the centre-half claims to be unawares. The 27-year-old does acknowledge the importance of continued Irish recognition to his morale. "It has been a release when I come away," he admits. "There was no better night than the Estonia game. And I'd never, ever have believed that I would be preparing for a European Championships."
With Leicester missing out on the play-offs, St Ledger has a break now until May 17. He was speaking in the rain at Carton House yesterday, but will go on holiday later this week before returning for the serious business.
He knows the effort that some fans are making to get to Poland; his father and his disabled younger brother are driving from Birming- ham. "A long trip," he says, shaking his head. "I wouldn't fancy doing it."
By putting in the graft, he has earned the direct route to the centre of the action.