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O'Neill banking on wise heads to pay dividend

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Martin O'Neill with Pearse Rangers U11's stars Daniel Harris, left, and Kyle Smith with Cambridge Girls U11's players Brooke Carr, left, and Abbie Cassidy. Bank of Ireland, Grand Canal Square

Martin O'Neill with Pearse Rangers U11's stars Daniel Harris, left, and Kyle Smith with Cambridge Girls U11's players Brooke Carr, left, and Abbie Cassidy. Bank of Ireland, Grand Canal Square

SPORTSFILE

Martin O'Neill with Pearse Rangers U11's stars Daniel Harris, left, and Kyle Smith with Cambridge Girls U11's players Brooke Carr, left, and Abbie Cassidy. Bank of Ireland, Grand Canal Square

IN the appropriate setting of a financial institution, Martin O'Neill chose his squad announcement for Sunday fortnight's crunch encounter with Poland to suggest that he will bank on experience.

The stakes are high for the Aviva Stadium date, a game that Ireland have to win if the FAI's gamble on the dream team of O'Neill and Roy Keane is going to deliver automatic qualification for Euro 2016.

Anything less and a straight shoot-out with Scotland for a play-off spot is the most plausible scenario, and that would be an extremely nervy situation for all concerned.

Therefore, with no friendly match preceding the visit of the group leaders, radical experimentation is off the agenda. Instead, it is about using the week long build-up in base camp to construct an attacking plan that is capable of delivering an overdue success of note in Ballsbridge.

O'Neill has awarded a first call-up to Bournemouth's Harry Arter, a 25-year-old Londoner who was capped at U-19 level while on the books of Charlton before taking a step back and then two steps forward by dropping down to non-league football and re-emerging to become one of the most exciting attacking midfielders in the Championship.

SURPRISE

Nevertheless, it would be a surprise if Arter (right), a brother-in-law of Scott Parker, suddenly jumped into contention for a jersey against the Poles.

There were raised eyebrows when Wes Hoolahan's name was missing from the provisional squad sheet that the FAI initially distributed at the Bank of Ireland building in Dublin's Docklands, a discovery that caused mild panic amongst media staff before an updated 35-man list was produced with the Norwich playmaker on the page.

O'Neill was bemused by the administrative error, stressing that he'd been to watch Hoolahan against Watford recently and adding that the in-form schemer, an absentee for the November loss to Scotland, is very much in his thinking. Arter may have to wait in line.

Still, there remains a huge curiosity about the possibility of further additions; O'Neill did confess that he has a few irons in the fire with a view to the summer although he's refusing to get too carried away until he receives a firm commitment from a player - the false steer from a representative of Harry Kane last year is an example of how hopes can be raised and then dashed.

"I don't want to sound like a detective here but I'm following up a number of leads," said O'Neill. "I think there's one or two might come to fruition in the next couple of months, maybe even before the Scotland game but that might be pleasantly surprising."

Asked if the key is getting beyond agents and making contact with players directly, the 63-year replied: "I think sometimes the agent is seemingly almost like an excuse preventing that.

"One particular lad has called me who bypassed agents and he'd be pretty keen. I'm putting something in motion at the moment."

In keeping with his usual approach, he declined to divulge any further information. He did admit that Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson is being monitored, yet the fact that Gareth Southgate has drafted the promising talent into the England U-21 squad is an issue. Patrick Bamford, the Chelsea forward on loan at Middlesbrough, has slipped further out of reach since Southgate's call.

Meanwhile, there are no developments on Jack Grealish with O'Neill again giving the impression that the Aston Villa teen's public dithering has irked Irish management..

"I haven't chased it," he said. "If someone is hanging around waiting, I'm not overly enamoured with that sort of thing. My concern is immediate and more pressing with the players who give up their time to play for us."

That sentiment would strike a chord with Robbie Keane, although the skipper was less than impressed when he was benched for the Celtic Park reverse. Ireland's record scorer has just kicked off his MLS season and O'Neill dropped a strong hint that his predatory instincts will be required to unlock the Poles.

Shane Long was picked in Glasgow but is only returning to action from an injury break which has interrupted a mixed campaign; Jon Walters is arguably ahead of the Tipp man on the strength of club displays after brightening his picture at Stoke. As O'Neill's predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni would say, however, Robbie is Robbie.

"Robbie is our best scorer, let's be fair," he asserted. "Robbie has mentioned that playing up on his own, particularly away from home, can be a problem for a 34-year-old.

"If Robbie was 28 or 29 we'd find a role for him somewhere along the way in the team. His experience, goal-getting, his canniness is an absolute asset for us even now and you could not be without him. It would be nice to think that some people might come up and take his place but just look at the record.

"If there is a difference in playing home and away, which I obviously think that there is, I don't see a problem. We have to try and find a goal, we have to find a goal to win a game, particularly at home with the onus on us to attack, and Robbie Keane's record is there for all to see."

Discussion around the personnel who will be tasked with putting the ball in the Polish net will doubtless be a strong part of the preliminaries, yet the manager acknowledged he might be presented with a decision at the other end of the pitch.

David Forde has done nothing wrong in this campaign. At Millwall, though, a leaky rearguard has conceded 60 goals in a relegation battle they look like losing.

Forde has largely escaped blame for their woe but the concern is confidence. On the flip side, Shay Given has impressed on his fleeting appearances for Villa in a cup run that has brought his employers to an FA Cup semi-final.

"I was desperately hoping for a replay (v West Brom) so he got another game," joked O'Neill. "I will have plenty of decisions to make in naming the team.

"With David, I think sometimes, and I know from personal experience, if you're having a difficult time at club level, getting into a different environment with different voices I think will be good. Not only David: I think some other players will benefit from that."

A choice between a 38-year-old and 35-year-old is indicative of the bigger picture. Just four members of the enlarged selection are under the age of 25 and the reason for that is simple.

"I've seen quite a number of young players," he explained. "My assessment is that I don't think they're ready to step up and play senior football at such a critical stage."

In other words, this is not the time for risky investment.

Irish Independent