Wednesday 21 February 2018

Martin O'Neill will give striking options the hard sell

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

THE reality of international football is that it leaves a manager with plenty of time on his hands.

Martin O'Neill quipped yesterday that he is probably better placed than anybody to assess the strength of the Championship as it heads into the final furlong, given the amount of games that he has watched.

Long breaks also allow a variety of thoughts to cross his mind about the state of play in Group D, for example the difference that it could make to this Irish group if they had a Robert Lewandowski in their ranks.

"I think we would have a fairly decent chance if there was a possibility of a genius out there turning the game," said the Derry man, as part of a broader discussion about the talent at his disposal.

He knows that Ireland's Euro 2016 fate will be determined by fine margins and that's why he has goalscorers on his mind.

Robbie Keane is no longer the force of old and the search for a long-term successor is an equation that he is no closer to solving. Shane Long's late contribution against the Poles saved the day and he shares attributes with other strikers in the group.

But the absence of a natural poacher with a real X-factor is a concern and, when pressed on the topic at the launch of the FAI's Summer Soccer Schools, O'Neill left the impression that he would be prepared to place his trust in a new recruit that ticked the boxes.


The name of Patrick Bamford, the Chelsea star who is lighting up the Championship on loan at Middlesbrough, cropped up under this heading.

While declining to discuss individuals, the 63-year-old indicated that he is willing to persuade a prospective option by telling them they will get immediate opportunities that wouldn't be available in the English set-up.

"If we thought, selfishly, that it was going to serve my purpose and the connection was there for it to be made . . . for somebody stepping in, you could not only step into our side, you could be playing top-quality international football before you'd ever set foot playing for someone else. I wouldn't have a genuine problem with (doing) that."

Asked directly about Bamford, he said "I couldn't turn around and say to you individually who I'd do it with but, in terms of your general point, I absolutely agree with it."

O'Neill did confirm that the eligibility of Preston's Joe Garner is being explored, a 26-year-old striker who has a good record in League One but wouldn't set the pulses racing like Bamford would. Bournemouth attacker Callum Wilson is another player on the radar with recent England U-21 experience.

For now, Irish management are dealing with their existing hand with a number of situations to keep an eye on, with a view to the summer meetings with England and Scotland.

Darron Gibson is unlikely to figure in those fixtures after his latest injury setback, although O'Neill is waiting on a firm update from the FAI medical staff arising from discussions with Everton. He has sympathy for the luckless midfielder, who is worried about his club future despite guarantees from manager Roberto Martinez.

"He has been really unfortunate and naturally he would be concerned about what's going to happen to him at club level," said O'Neill. "He hasn't played much."

Goalkeeper Shay Given has been dormant for other reasons, with a good run with Aston Villa in the FA Cup giving the Donegal native a sense of purpose and also influencing the decision to pick him in favour of David Forde for the Polish encounter.

It gives the Irish camp a reason to be rooting for the Midlanders in Sunday's Wembley joust with Liverpool, yet in the bigger picture O'Neill hinted that a taste of proper action has given the 38-year-old reason to think about his next move in the summer.

"I think that's a question that you would really need to put to him but in conversations that I've had, he feels that been given a kind of a new lease of life at international level and in cup matches and almost proven to himself again that he's capable of doing it at a very, very decent level," he said.

"That must have given him some food for thought."

Jack Grealish might also step out for that semi-final, a teenager who remains in limbo as far as O'Neill is concerned despite his positive mutterings at the recent FAI awards.

"Has my opinion of the situation changed? Absolutely not. There's a possibility he might start again which would be great for him. I'll monitor, I'll keep an eye on it but I'm not just going to start pressurising him," said the Ireland manager.

"As for his performances, you'd have to assess someone starting in a number of matches, not coming off the bench, or starting a game and coming off after 65 minutes. I'll reserve judgment."

In short, there is no expectation that Grealish will feature in the June double-header.

The former Sunderland boss expects James McClean to be in good heart despite the seeming inevitability of relegation with Wigan and reckons he is capable of moving on successfully with his career.

McClean's season will be over on May 2, whereas the other panellists employed in the Championship may be engaged in play-off duties which will keep them active up until the next Irish gathering.

After this weekend, the picture should become clearer, and a chat with Roy Keane and the backroom staff will formulate the itinerary.

Meanwhile, with no clarity on the short-term plans, O'Neill batted away queries about his own long-term future, with his current contract tied in with Ireland's Euros fate.

He has made noises about wanting to stay on even if Ireland fall short in their French mission while adding the caveat that exiting with 'a whimper' would lead him to review that stance.

The money men in Abbotstown will be hoping that the worst-case scenario never comes to pass.

Irish Independent

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