Martin O'Neill adds new blood to boost injury-hit squad
Ireland manager may have to look beyond tried and trusted with fitness concerns influencing Scottish preparations
THE countdown to Glasgow begins in earnest this morning when the Irish squad stretch their legs in Malahide.
But the cameras may well be trained on some individuals who were not expected to figure prominently in the debate around Friday's eagerly anticipated 'local derby' at Celtic Park.
Discussion building up to the game has centred around the familiarity that the protagonists in the Group D qualifier will have with each other.
For Martin O'Neill, though, some unexpected injury woes mean that he might have to shuffle his pack.
He sprung a couple of surprises yesterday when he confirmed the identity of his final 27-man squad, adding Cyrus Christie and David McGoldrick to the squad for the first time.
Derby right-full Christie and Ipswich striker McGoldrick have received international clearance and next Tuesday's Aviva Stadium friendly with the United States appears to be a realistic starting point for their journeys.
Still, with concerns surrounding Seamus Coleman last week and some intensive days on the training ground ahead, O'Neill is in a position where he can take nothing for granted.
Down the spine of his team, he already knows that he will have to make adjustments from the team which valiantly hung in there to secure a draw from Germany last month.
Christie's Derby colleague Richard Keogh is in pole position to step in for the biggest game of his Ireland career.
The 28-year-old is in a three-way battle with Reading's Alex Pearce and Aston Villa's Ciaran Clark for the centre-half position vacated by Marc Wilson, who was ruled out with a hamstring problem.
O'Neill rates Keogh highly and made him captain for September's friendly encounter with Oman.
And Keogh, who is the skipper of his promotion-chasing employers, is now in line for his first Irish competitive appearance next to John O'Shea.
Ahead of that likely pairing, question marks surround O'Neill's first-choice midfield options. James McCarthy is included despite Everton's concerns with his hamstring injury and he will be assessed by Irish medics today before a decision is made on his contribution.
O'Neill said at his provisional squad announcement that he wanted doubtful players to come to Dublin and be checked out here after the withdrawal of McCarthy and Coleman from the Germany match drew a sceptical response - most notably from ex-Irish international Kevin Kilbane. His comments were born from his suspicion that Everton were applying pressure and, with Gareth Barry struck down at the weekend, Roberto Martinez does not want to lose McCarthy as well.
The Glaswegian, who turns 24 tomorrow, has been in outstanding form for the Toffees and the loss of his drive and determination would be a blow given the expected intensity of the fixture. O'Neill and his staff will be able to assess his problem at close hand and decide if he is ready.
Glenn Whelan, meanwhile, has not given up on his hopes of playing a part in the game despite being left off the 27-man list.
The spirited Dubliner suffered a fracture in his leg in Germany and his club boss Mark Hughes has struggled to disguise his bemusement at the player's optimistic assertion that he can make it.
Whelan has joined the group as a 28th man with a view to engaging in training and giving himself an opportunity.
As it stands, though, he remains likely to miss out and, in that context, Darron Gibson's 75-minute outing for Everton at Sunderland when Barry hobbled off might prove significant.
The Derry native has the maturity to play as a defensive shield in midfield and Martinez is happy with his progress following the guts of a year on the sidelines with knee heartbreak.
"Darron is still working towards getting to his best level of match fitness because he was out for nearly a year with the injury he picked up," said Martinez.
"But we have seen today (Sunday)that he is a phenomenal passer of the ball. He has got incredible technical ability and it's great to have him in the team."
Stephen Quinn has started both away games in the group to date and his application is respected by Irish management.
Another leading option is Jeff Hendrick, who could be thrust into the spotlight if McCarthy is unavailable. The 22-year-old is in flying form at Derby, scoring twice in their weekend win at Wolves, and his ability to break from deep makes him an attractive alternative.
Elsewhere, there were no major shocks in the trimmed-down panel. A knock has ruled Sheffield Wednesday's Keiren Westwood out of the equation but O'Neill still has Shay Given, Rob Elliot and Darren Randolph as back-up to David Forde.
Stephen Kelly, Simon Cox, Damien Delaney, Paul McShane, Conor Sammon, Paul Green and Brian Lenihan were cut from the original provisional panel. The latter already knew his fate as O'Neill cleared him to join Noel King's U-21 squad this week. Crystal Palace defender Delaney may feel slightly unlucky.
O'Neill is likely to field a proliferation of queries this week about the emotional significance of returning to his former stomping ground. He sought to play that down in a UK interview which surfaced yesterday.
"While I might turn right instead of left as we go into the dressing-rooms, I don't think I've ever set foot in the away dressing-room before," he said. "This is a game against Scotland, not against Celtic.
"I'm not going back to Celtic Park to represent a club (against the one) that I loved for several years, I'm going for a different challenge. That's not me playing it down, that's the reality."
He also dealt with the reception that McCarthy and Aiden McGeady will receive from the home fans in the city they grew up in.
O'Neill knows McGeady better, having overseen his progress during his time as Hoops supremo and is confident he will be able to handle it.
"I have to say now that, although at the time I had absolutely nothing to do with his decision, I am absolutely delighted he chose to follow his forefathers from Donegal," he said.
"Remember that while the game is being played at Celtic Park, it will not be made up necessarily all of Celtic-chanting supporters. It is the prerogative of fans to choose.
"But I don't think it would have an impact on such a precocious kid. It's natural you would prefer people to applaud a piece of brilliance, but he's gained experience and at the age he's at (28), I think he'll take this in his stride."
There will be a lot of talking in the build-up, and both camps have made attempts to play down the importance the result could have in the bigger picture.
"It's not a pivotal game in terms of us qualifying and not qualifying," said Scots assistant Mark McGhee at their first media gathering."
O'Neill sung from a similar hymn sheet. "After the Scotland game, regardless of the result, our fate will depend on 2015 when we have four of the next five games at the Aviva Stadium," he stressed.
When Friday night comes around, however, it will feel like the world depends on it.
Hot prospects looking to make their mark
The 22-year-old qualifies through a grandparent born in Dublin but he is a new name on the Irish radar.
Kevin Kilbane recalls playing with a young Christie at Coventry and being unaware of any Irish connection. However, the player says there was contact from the FAI last year before his summer switch to Derby which boosted his profile.
The right-full has made a good impression with a promotion-chasing side that O’Neill watches regularly. “He is very strong,” said the Ireland boss last month. “He likes to get forward and is a bit like Seamus Coleman in that regard, but I’m not sure anyone is like Seamus at this moment. But he likes to take on players and his defensive work is improving.”
Christie, who hails from the Midlands, is a childhood friend of Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish, who is weighing up his international options.
The 26-year-old has clocked up plenty of experience around the lower leagues.
Permanent spells with Southampton and Nottingham Forest were peppered with loan spells at Notts County (his youth club), Bournemouth, Port Vale, Sheffield Wednesday, Coventry and, finally, Ipswich where his impressive performances encouraged Mick McCarthy to buy him from Forest. Under his tutelage, McGoldrick has progressed to another level and almost joined Leicester for £8m in the summer.
He scored 16 goals last term before injury finished his season prematurely and scuppered his side’s play-off hopes. Stephen Hunt praised the new recruit last month, saying: “He’s a class act, he can keep possession all day. He can shoot with both feet. Why isn’t he playing in the Premier League?”
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