Saturday 14 December 2019

O'Neill's squad charade bridges gap to real business

Announcing mammoth provisional panel buys Martin O'Neill time ahead of German showdown - and gives him free rein to joke about Grealish-Quinn row

Martin O'Neill in thoughtful mood at yesterday's press conference. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Martin O'Neill in thoughtful mood at yesterday's press conference. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

"I am sorry if this seems like old hat again," said Martin O'Neill, sensing the disappointment that his latest "provisional, provisional" Ireland squad was devoid of excitement.

He revealed 37 names in Abbotstown yesterday, a group that will be pared down closer to the double-header with Gibraltar (October 11) and Germany (October 14).

The absence of fresh faces has become a recurring theme of these announcements and O'Neill knows it may be slightly repetitive.

"I've given you a list here and I think the only player missing in the last 30 years would be Paul McGrath," he joked. "I think I've dug everybody up to keep everybody happy. I think I've just excluded a couple of people who have just died. Eventually, it sorts itself out and closer to the time I'll take it down."

That may be deflating for the uncapped players that are outside the tent, but it confirms that O'Neill's primary focus is on garnering improvement from the existing options as opposed to throwing caps around.

It means that these panel announcements are less about the names on the page and more about providing a general state of play with a fortnight to go until the serious business.

With his main men in good health - Seamus Coleman has a slight hamstring complaint - O'Neill spent his morning fielding a random range of queries.

Across the course of 45 minutes, the 62-year-old dealt with a number of topics without a central theme.

Gibraltar distractions

Defeating the minnows should pose no real difficulty ahead of the showdown with the world champions, but there's a danger of the camp turning into a bit of a circus, with Roy Keane's book released two days beforehand and Anthony Stokes due in court on the eve.

There was no jocularity when Stokes was raised, with O'Neill keeping details of a discussion with the Celtic striker private. If his hearing goes ahead on that date, then it's entirely possible he will be left out of the final panel.

As ever, he took a light-hearted approach to the Keane question. "If he is giving out dog's abuse, I'll just dump him," he grinned, when asked about his assistant's collaboration with Roddy Doyle, later adding that the only autobiography he'd ever read was the work of his hero Ferenc Puskas.

He is prepared for a small bit of a Keane storm and would ideally prefer a different release date, but one suspects he will deal with it in similar fashion.

Granny watch

There is nothing to report on Mark Noble and nor will there be unless the player actually says that he wants to play for Ireland. "I wouldn't be chasing him," O'Neill said. "Whether he will come to me, I don't know."

Ipswich's David McGoldrick is a probable addition, with work ongoing on getting his clearance across the line. He will add to the striking options and join his clubmates Conor Sammon and Daryl Murphy

Another in-form poacher who is very much a born-and-bred Irishman - Chesterfield's Eoin Doyle - has pricked management's attention.

League One status leaves him down the queue but O'Neill is keeping tabs on his progress.

Andy Reid/Joey O'Brien

Reid is out of international exile but has been unable to answer an O'Neill call since last November and could drop out of forthcoming business if he needs another injection to aid his Nottingham Forest prospects. He missed the Georgia trip for that reason.

"I have to just have a conversation with Andy himself and see what he wants to do, just see if he really does want to come back playing," O'Neill explained.

"He was there November time, hurt his hamstring in a bit of training we've done and I've not really since him since. But I wouldn't rule him out. He's got talent and his fitness. He looks as fit as he's ever been in terms of his body shape. And if he's got the desire to come and play for us, absolutely."

O'Brien is out of this squad with a knee complaint that really looks like hindering his prospects of fighting for a place. "Joey comes to the squads, he says hello and then just disappears again," said O'Neill. "He's got a willingness to come but he's definitely got a problem maintaining four or five days' constant training."

Fake Paddygate

Jack Grealish remains in thought over his international future and has given the impression he may even wait until the end of this club season. His revelation that Stephen Quinn had called him a 'Fake Paddy' in the recent Aston Villa-Hull encounter seemed to upset some outside observers more than it had bothered the teen himself.

"I was wondering how it was said, whether it was a tongue-in-cheek remark or if there was a serious intonation to it," said O'Neill. "I can't say that I know Stephen Quinn that well. If he's going to annoy a young player who might play for us and that causes him not to play, I'll leave Quinn out," he said, before pausing and clarifying: "That was a joke by the way."

Euro 2020

The 62-year-old acknowledged that Ireland's co-hosting success is a positive development. That said, he refused to play ball with a line of questioning building towards whether it would make him want to stick around for that long.

He pointed out that his current two-year deal is based around qualifying for the 2016 European Championship so he's in no position to look longer term.

"There might be a couple of us in this room who might even not make it to 2020," he smiled.

"If I was 22 and Jeff Hendrick, I would be looking forward to 2020."

Returning options

Hendrick, who is clearly in the good books, should come into contention for the October outings if he can get a match under his belt for Derby. A dislocated shoulder prevented him from featuring in the McGeady show in Georgia.

James McClean was on target off the bench for Wigan on Monday and is now approaching full fitness. Once he arrives in tip-top shape, he is a real contender for the underdog mission on German soil with his fearless attitude. "Absolutely, no doubt," stated O'Neill. "In my time at club or international level, he has never let me down or let himself down."

Selection hints

True to form, the experienced boss didn't give too much away, observing that he has very few players who could be considered definite starters, with no guarantee offered that David Forde's status for Match-day One confirms he will keep the gloves.

He conceded that, unsurprisingly, the dramatic contrast in difficulty will mean two different starting sides. O'Neill agreed that Wes Hoolahan would be ideal for picking apart Gibraltar with a view to improving creativity at the Aviva.

And he didn't dispute that the pace of Shane Long would be key for trying to stretch Germany on the counter. Scotland have shown that Joachim Loew's charges can be rattled, although O'Neill wondered aloud if a hangover from Brazilian celebrations had contributed to the unexpected suspense in that 2-1 win for the top seeds.

First and foremost, he wants his team to raise the performance level from Georgia. "We still have our own game to play and I think we can cause Germany problems," he said.

The available evidence tells us that he will only publicly reveal his full plan for achieving that mission in the hours before kick-off in Gelsenkirchen.

Ireland squad v Gibraltar/Germany: Forde (Millwall), Given (Aston Villa), Randolph (Birmingham), Westwood (Sheff Wed), Elliot (Newcastle); Keogh (Derby), Wilson (Stoke), Coleman (Everton), O'Shea (Sunderland), Pearce (Reading), Kelly (Reading), McShane (Hull), Delaney (Crystal Palace), Duffy (Blackburn), Clark (Aston Villa), Ward (Burnley); McCarthy (Everton), Hendrick (Derby), Whelan (Stoke), Gibson (Everton), Reid (Nottm Forest). Green (Rotherham), McGeady (Everton), Pilkington (Cardiff), McClean (Wigan), Brady (Hull), Quinn (Hull), Meyler (Hull), Hoolahan (Norwich); Keane (LA Galaxy), Long (Southampton), Murphy (Ipswich), Walters (Stoke), Doyle (Crystal Palace), Stokes (Celtic), Cox (Reading), Sammon (Ipswich).

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