Sunday 27 May 2018

Aidan O'Hara: Maguire could be Ireland's Woodburn - if he gets chance

Preston North End's Jordan Hugill celebrates scoring
Preston North End's Jordan Hugill celebrates scoring
Wales' Ben Woodburn. Photo: Steven Paston/PA Wire
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

It's a measure of the lack of depth in Irish football that, where once there would be a high-quality player that the public could demand should be playing, we now have to look abroad to discover what we're missing.

Jack Charlton had Liam Brady; good enough to be the conductor of the Juventus orchestra at a time when Serie A was the benchmark for club football, but who wasn't trusted to be the player that a nation who had never qualified for a major tournament could build around.

Charlton's successor had his own issues with a world-class midfielder and, regardless of what position you took in the Mick McCarthy-Roy Keane debate, it's difficult to argue against the theory that, like Brady, the team could have achieved even more with their best players on the inside looking out.

Perhaps it's a midfielder thing, but for Giovanni Trapattoni there was first Andy Reid, who could have provided quality to a team short on creative ideas, before Wes Hoolahan took up the diminutive, creative, wand-of-a-left-foot midfield mantle.

That the selection of Hoolahan, who is two months older than Reid, remains an issue for Martin O'Neill reflects just how low the level of the cause celebre well has dropped.

As he does, Eamon Dunphy tried to find a saviour who the manager should be getting more from, but when his argument is based on the premise that David Meyler should have played in Georgia, or that the diamond formation isn't getting the best out of James McClean, it's hard to imagine the Liveline phones hopping.

Instead, last week the Irish focus switched to Ben Woodburn, the 17-year-old who injected the impetus into the Wales campaign that allowed them to go from trailing Ireland by four points after six games, to being one ahead after eight.

Where could we get one of them? The answer, frankly, is nobody has a clue. Because, despite being identified as a potential Welsh player at the age of eight, it's Liverpool, rather than the Welsh coaching structure, who have made him the player he is.

Whether Ireland are doing enough to produce or develop young players isn't really part of O'Neill's remit, but the key question around Woodburn, in an Irish context, is whether he would have been given a chance with a career total of just nine first-team appearances behind him? That is very much in O'Neill's control.

It's unlikely to bother Chris Coleman that Woodburn's only first-team action between now and next month's final two qualifiers will come in a League Cup game against Leicester City next Tuesday, a competition used by managers either to judge potential or punishment and which, as a result, means every impressive individual performance comes with an asterisk.

For obvious reasons Woodburn hasn't proved himself at any level, but Coleman saw enough to trust him in a crucial qualifier, while 16-year-old Ethan Ampadu - whose father Kwame hails from Dublin - watched from the bench.

Ireland, arguably, have a greater depth of talent than Wales, but Coleman seems far keener to trust his own judgement of a player rather than waiting for them to prove themselves in the club game.

If he plays tonight for West Ham, Declan Rice will have started all four Premier League games for them this season yet, having been brought in to train with the seniors in Cork last May, shows no signs of even making provisional Ireland squads.

Ireland are, admittedly, relatively well served in midfield, but in the case of Seán Maguire it does beg the question of what exactly O'Neill is looking for when he watches players in training.

At club level, managers take players on trial and decide to sign them based largely around how well they perform against established players. Given how few Irish players are first-choice at elite clubs, the same method may soon need to be used to judge whether a player is ready to be an international.

Instead, O'Neill, as he did with Daryl Horgan and Maguire, seems to place the bar on performing well for a month in the Championship, against players who may not be anything like they'd face in an international and under a manager who may employ completely different tactics.

In explaining why Maguire was in the original 39-man squad against Georgia and Serbia, O'Neill said: "I've seen a bit more of him now and it's a chance for him to come into the group and feel a bit more comfortable with it. That's the way to give him a chance to be really ready when he finally does make a debut."

That debut, however, never came and even though Ireland ended the Serbia game with Shane Long, Daryl Murphy and Jon Walters as their strikers - with an average age of 32 and a combined tally of 32 goals in 148 appearances - O'Neill hinted that Maguire may still need more time.

"While you like some people like (Scott) Hogan and young Maguire to come into the squad and maybe have a little look round for a while, it's asking a lot to go in. But we'll see; you never know what the month might bring in terms of players playing a wee bit of extra football at club level, even in the Championship, and maybe just being ready for it."

On Saturday, Maguire buried a powerful header for Preston with the sort of goal he netted several times for Cork and it's reasonable to think he might have done the same during international training. It's an odd logic, though, that doing it to earn a point against Barnsley is what might convince O'Neill that he is ready to play against Moldova and Wales.

There is, naturally, a reactionary element to any player bandwagon, but given how insipid Ireland's attack was for much of its last three hours, a reaction is exactly what we need.

Nobody is claiming Maguire is a 27-year-old Robbie Keane, but a 23-year-old in-form striker who will get the crowd behind the player, team and manager isn't something O'Neill should be over-thinking, even if it may look like giving in to the mob.

If he doesn't, and Dunphy gives him a mention, we'll know Maguire is, at least, a new wearer of the cause celebre crown.

Irish Independent

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