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Five things O'Neill must do before the next international

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Stephen Ireland

Stephen Ireland

Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

Stephen Ireland

In managerial terms, Martin O'Neill is still on honeymoon. The feel-good factor following his appointment has been re-enforced by a couple of decent results in the November friendlies.

Serbia will provide a stiffer test, a more accurate measure of Ireland's current standing.

Though only a friendly, it is an important one, a chance for the manager to get his message across and for prospective candidates to audition for a September role.

There are some big decisions to be made. Here are five key things O'Neill must do to stamp his authority on the current regime.

1 IGNORE STEPHEN IRELAND BECAUSE HE POISONS MORALE

Bratislava was the turning point in the Steve Staunton regime and the ending point of Stephen Ireland's international career, the night Ireland made his sixth, and last, appearance for his country, scoring his fourth international goal in a 2-2 draw against Slovakia, before returning to the dressing-room for a phone call which would change his life.

At the other end of the line was Jessica, his girlfriend – and to this day the precise content of their conversation remains unclear. What is evident, though, is that Jessica wanted Stephen back home immediately.

Her boyfriend did his best to appease her, approaching Staunton to tell him his grandmother had passed away – before asking if he could skip the forthcoming qualifier against the Czech Republic.

Staunton was strong in his support – as were his Irish team-mates, who took it in turns to go to Ireland's room at the Radisson Hotel that night to offer their condolences.

Those mourners recall Ireland telling his audience stories of growing up with Patricia Tallon – and how much his maternal grandmother meant to him – with the team physio, Mick Byrne, showing the most sympathy, staying with the midfielder until the early hours of the morning, worried for a young man who was supposedly grieving.

So can you imagine their surprise then when they learned within 48 hours that Patricia Tallon was still alive?

Or what their reaction was when Ireland – by now back in Manchester courtesy of a private jet arranged and paid for by the FAI – had changed his story to claim it was actually his paternal grandmother (Barbara Kitchener) who had died?

So how did the players – preparing for a crunch Euro 2008 qualifier against the Czechs – feel about Ireland at this stage? Angry is the answer.

By October 2007, Ireland was still in England, even though the team had reassembled in Dublin for a qualifier against Cyprus – now insisting he had to be in Manchester to avail of as much family support as possible.

The rest of the squad shrugged their shoulders – and in time, as Ireland jetted off around Europe for Manchester City's UEFA Cup matches, would wonder what the difference between club and international trips were.

And they would also consider the conspiracy theorists who said Ireland quit the panel because of the constant abuse he was getting about his hairstyle – with one speculator suggesting players pinned him to the ground to see if he was wearing a wig.

A senior player denies this incident, saying: "Nothing of the sort happened. The nearest we can think of is the party trick Paul McShane plays where he flicks someone's forehead when no one is looking.

"Now, bear in mind, Paul was closer to Stephen than anyone in the squad. Plus, he is always joking around. No one escapes the trick.

"And if memory serves me right, he flicked Stephen's forehead on the team-bus. That wasn't a gang of guys holding him down and pulling at the roots of his hair. The truth is none of us really know why he quit. But I reckon his embarrassment over the granny story is a factor."

Nearly seven years on, Ireland wants back. Yet he is no longer the same player and his return has the potential to poison team morale, even though most of the cast from Bratislava have moved on.

Of course we have been here before, post-Saipan, when Brian Kerr decided Roy Keane was worth the risk and ended the Cork-man's exile.

The difference between now and then? Keane was a superb player. Ireland is not. In sport, the team always has to come first and Ireland has not put his country in that position since Slovakia. In this respect, O'Neill has to make the tough call and leave him out.

2 IGNORE THE GOLDEN OLDIES

Robbie Keane and Richie Dunne are battle-weary veterans. Friendly fire, at this stage of their career, is not their thing and having just overcome an Achilles injury, Keane, in particular, does not need the hassle of a transatlantic flight just as his MLS season kicks off.

From O'Neill's perspective, there is nothing to learn by picking the pair. He managed Dunne for a couple of seasons and knows how to connect with the Dubliner, just as he knows which buttons to press with his captain.

Were he to play both men then two younger players – who badly need the experience – would miss out. So by picking up the phone and explaining that – come September – each man was in his plans but that now, in a March friendly, he needed to experiment, no one would be insulted and everyone would gain.

3 DON'T UNDERMINE FORDE BY BRINGING BACK GIVEN

David Forde has grown into the role as Ireland's No 1. Despite his lowly club status, his form for Ireland has been hugely impressive, not least in Germany when his agility and awareness prevented a calamity from occurring.

Confident in his ability, the last thing he needs right now is a manager turning to a 37-year-old retiree who may very well be the greatest goalkeeper Ireland has ever had but who, through no fault of his own, will be a number three at Aston Villa again when the Serbians come to town.

Whereas Forde could benefit from another cap – he has only 15 to date – Given's selection would seriously discredit the Galwegian's position.

Should O'Neill strike a deal with the Donegalman, however, and persuade him to be on stand-by in case of an emergency, then he would have a win-win scenario – an endorsement of Forde and a safety net in place should an injury crisis occur.

4 IMITATE HIS MENTOR, BRIAN CLOUGH

When he was trying to sign Archie Gemmill for Derby County, Brian Clough spent the night sleeping in his car outside the Scotsman's house. He wanted to sign him that badly.

Times have changed but the motivation to secure good players remains a central theme of every manager's life. International football is different, of course, as no transfer market exists. But the granny rule does. And two players – Nathan Redmond and Patrick Bamford – are eligible for Ireland.

In Redmond, a winger, Norwich have a player whose value has doubled in the six months since he was signed by Chris Hughton from Birmingham.

The pace, trickery and decision-making of the £2.5m youngster has been one of Norwich's few bright moments this year.

Bamford, by contrast, is a striker on loan at Derby from Chelsea who has the potential to be the genuine article. England are wary of losing either player. O'Neill the manager has to become O'Neill the salesman.

5 GET 4-4-2 AND STICK IT IN THE TACTICS DUSTBIN

There was a time when 4-4-2 was as identifiable with an Irish team as the green shirts. But football has moved on – an issue Giovanni Trapattoni struggled to grasp.

"There aren't formations in the game anymore," said Slaven Bilic in the run-up to Euro 2012. "The game has just become too fluid. Players shift up and down the field."

Unless they played for Trapattoni's Ireland where straight lines were the order of the day and if any side possessed a clever playmaker, then gaps could be found – think Russia, Armenia and Slovakia at Lansdowne Road in the Euro 2012 qualifiers and Sweden, Austria and Germany in the last World Cup campaign.

For Ireland to qualify for France, 4-4-2 has to go – and some system that bulks up the midfield, 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 has to arrive.

Irish Independent