Friday 27 April 2018

Green army lining up ready to impress

With O'Neill's philosophy resetting selection norms, Daniel McDonnell assesses whichEuro 2016 places are up for grabs


IF there was a moment to sum up the positivity which surrounded Friday's opening night of the new era, it came in the scene that followed Ireland's third goal.

This was a cliche coming to life, the substitutes working hard to impress the new man and push for the places.

Andy Reid, Jon Walters and, eventually, Shane Long were the three Irish replacements on the field at that point and they were all involved in the Tipp man's tap-in from an excellent Seamus Coleman cross.

Fittingly enough, the move of the match came as the trio of Kevin Doyle, Anthony Stokes and Paul Green were stripped on the sideline and ready to enter the fray.

They were snapped applauding the goal, next to the management, as they waited for their turn to impress.

As Ireland finished the game on a high, it painted the picture that O'Neill had an abundance of options at his disposal, especially as the fresh legs capitalised on Latvian weariness to resemble world beaters in the dying stages.

Tomorrow's meeting with Poland will, as O'Neill indicated afterwards, provide a far sterner test and a more accurate indication of the depth of talent.

But the change of approach on Friday has reset the norms from the Trapattoni era and genuinely created a sense that places are up for grabs.

The argument could be made that, barring injuries, Everton pair Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy and the consistent presence of John O'Shea are the only three players certain to kick off the competitive business next September.

Elsewhere, there's a lot to decide in the next 10 months.

After Keiren Westwood (below) was barely tested in the Latvian triumph, David Forde faces a tougher examination in Poznan.

By the end of the Trapattoni era, the Galwegian had established himself as the first choice and he deserved it on the strength of his outstanding performances. But he is back to square one now.

O'Neill may mix things up in other areas, but he will naturally want certainty about the identity of the man between the sticks so the fight between Forde and Westwood will have to be settled in the build-up to September.

"They (O'Neill/Keane) are in the game a long time and I am sure they will assess what has gone on previously," said Forde yesterday.

"I know what I have done for the side over the last year or so, I am very happy with my performances and I hope they continue to get better.

"It's the same for everybody. It's early doors and the manager is trying to get a feel for everything. It's still very, very early at this stage."

Aiden McGeady and James McClean were exceptional at the Aviva Stadium and both have the advantage of working previously with O'Neill. It gives them a head start over Robbie Brady and Anthony Pilkington who have picked up injuries at the wrong time.

That said, the absent duo are effective centrally as well, a comment that also extends to Anthony Stokes who was sent into the fray on the left as a late sub.

McClean is a more traditional winger whereas McGeady likes to drift infield. It will be interesting to observe the responsibilities of the wide men in Poland if Ireland do mix things up and go with two strikers.

McGeady admitted over the weekend that he felt he was being asked to do too much defensive work by Trapattoni.

Friday tackled a perception about Robbie Keane's effectiveness within an alternative formation.

Granted, the modest nature of the opposition has to be taken into consideration, but the rigidity of the Trapattoni era convinced us that the introduction of a more natural 'No 10' would be at Keane's expense because the central striker would have to be a target man.

Maybe, on Ireland's travels, that could be the modus operandi, but it is abundantly clear that room has to be found for the Tallaght man's goalscoring instincts in the next campaign.

Keane (right) will be 34 at the start of the Euro 2016 qualifiers and, while he is understandably sick of being asked about his age, it is relevant to question if he will be able to start every game from this point onwards.

Niggling injuries posed him problems in the World Cup mission and he may well have to be managed carefully from this point onwards, even if that involves taking him out of the firing line for certain challenges. The new managerial team should have the diplomatic skill to handle that issue.

Wes Hoolahan shone on Friday, finally given breathing room in a position that suits his strengths.

After being overlooked by his country when shining for his club, there's now been a role reversal and it could well be that the Dubliner's prospects of top billing in the Euros campaign will revolve around the club decisions he makes in 2014.

Chris Hughton never really seems to have been convinced by the 31-year-old and, at this stage of his career, he may have to make the difficult decision to seek a move away from Norwich. He surely has enough admirers within the game to secure top-flight football elsewhere.

Andy Reid, who turns 32 next summer, also made a positive impression in his brief cameo and it is a shame that he is unavailable for the Polish encounter.

Reid is firmly established at Nottingham Forest and if they get their promotion effort right this time then he could have stronger claims if Hoolahan stays put in the background at Norwich.

Glenn Whelan has long advocated a change in approach and he looked happier on Friday with his pressure higher up the park assisting the build-up to Aiden McGeady's second goal.

However, he will have to capitalise on Darron Gibson's setback if he is to feature on a regular basis when the Derry lad returns from his long-term knee injury.

It is safe to assume that James McCarthy is a lock in the engine room and if O'Neill wishes to stick with a Hoolahan or Reid as a playmaker – on home soil at least – then Gibson and Whelan will effectively be in direct competition.

The 34-year-old is making up for lost time with QPR after missing the entirety of his final year at Aston Villa through injury and he is thriving at Championship level with the Londoners.

However, he was rested for this international double-header to avoid overworking his groin and O'Neill, who brought Dunne to Villa, cannot plan ahead with certainty as regards the Dubliner.

He will have to use friendly windows to develop alternatives in that area, specifically Ciaran Clark – who was recruited to the Irish cause by Dunne and made his club debut under O'Neill.

In the context of the midfield debate and the Dunne issue, the deployment of Marc Wilson on Friday was perhaps significant.

Wilson lined out as a centre-half in his formative spell at cash-strapped Portsmouth, but has since established himself with club and country at left full before graduating to a central midfield role with Stoke.

The unavailability of Dunne and Clark left a vacancy in the heart of the back four on Friday, but O'Neill has identified Wilson as a possible option in that role for the long haul.

It is entirely likely, of course, that the absence of a better alternative will see him retained at left-back, although Stephen Ward may have played himself back into contention and Joey O'Brien will feel he deserves a turn after injury again deprived him of a look-in this time. Greg Cunningham will also be hoping for a call.

Irish Independent

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