Wednesday 13 December 2017

Analysis: O’Neill needs his goalkeeper to be confident against Austria and that gives Westwood the edge

Republic of Ireland's Darren Randolph. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland's Darren Randolph. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Darren Randolph and Keiren Westwood have both made 21 appearances for Ireland.

They have reached that tally in different ways. Westwood has picked up caps here and there, missing out on several chances to make the shirt his own.

After Shay Given's first retirement post Euro 2012, he was the goalkeeper in waiting. But it was David Forde that eventually claimed the gloves. Poor attendance was a factor in Westwood's woe; his injuries always seemed to clash with Irish opportunities.

Then goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly was a tad miffed when he missed one double-header to get injections which ensured he wouldn't miss a club match.

Westwood was picked for Martin O'Neill's first game in charge, but the stop-start pattern continued. "If you're injured, you cannot do much," he said.

Randolph was a background extra at that juncture, a squad regular who was still technically eligible to declare for the USA - where his father hails from - until Martin O'Neill turned to him during the famous October 2015 qualifier with Germany when Given sustained an injury.

Republic of Ireland's Keiren Westwood. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland's Keiren Westwood. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Westwood had pulled out of the squad for that game due to fitness problems. Faced with the choice of Forde and Randolph, O'Neill opted for the latter and he rose to the challenge.

Since then, the Bray man has been Ireland's undisputed number one. He was composed in the Euro 2016 playoffs with Bosnia and was solid throughout the competition itself.

There were shouts in some quarters for Westwood (pictured below) to get his chance off the back of a fine campaign with Sheffield Wednesday, a move that has done wonders for his career.

Despite that, doubts hung over whether he would get a seat on the plane on account of O'Neill's loyalty to Forde. The latter would miss out, though, bringing down the curtain on his Irish story.

Westwood has been excellent again for Sheffield Wednesday this term, collecting their player of the season gong, and despite the disappointment of the play-offs he has reported for duty in good form.

Yet the reality is that the debate about the number one position has been triggered by Randolph's woe as opposed to Westwood's consistency.

The promise of his breakthrough into the West Ham side has been spun into a negative with a testing run of high-profile errors leading to Slaven Bilic restoring Adrian.

His decision-making has been questioned; and the mistake he made on Sunday to gift Uruguay a goal was similar to a couple of his West Ham aberrations.

The error that really hurt him was an unnecessary advance in the last minute at Sunderland that turned a routine cross into a dangerous one with Fabio Borini punishing the error.

Randolph has a lot going for him. He's a good shot stopper and an excellent kicker of the ball; that distribution has been an asset to Ireland. Critics have also pointed out problems with his positioning from dead-ball deliveries and, on Sunday, O'Neill will need to be fully sure that his chosen netminder is confident enough to command his area. Westwood managed to do that in his cameo against Uruguay, although they were hardly beating the door down.

What he brings is the assurance from a campaign where he has avoided strife. It would not represent a gamble to chuck him in.

O'Neill and other members of the Irish camp have always spoken about Randolph's laid-back nature. He does not give the impression that he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Last week in America, he was quite relaxed as he discussed his club situation.

The fact that the Derryman brought him to the US and then played him against Uruguay again suggests that he was very keen to get him on the pitch and tuned in for the Austrian encounter.

At the announcement of his squad, O'Neill gave Randolph a firm backing.

The tone has changed slightly post-Uruguay.

Yesterday, the Irish boss said that he had no intention of adding any more to the debate. Still, his turn of phrase was interesting.

"I have some choices to make," he said. "And that's what we have always wanted.

"We didn't want people stepping into the side and thinking they own it for the next couple of years. I've made some big calls during my time here and that's part of my job."

Randolph has benefited from one of those decisions, but there is a possibility that the West Ham 'keeper will now find himself on the receiving end.

This is a stand-alone game at the end of a club season and O'Neill cannot afford to enter it with a seed of doubt.

Maybe his words are an attempt to shock Randolph into life and let him know that he has a battle on his hands. Managers know how to send a message.

And it's not a bad problem to have; Austria are in a really bad position with three netminders missing.

Two of the goalkeepers they have brought are uncapped; the other hasn't played in a game of note since Dublin 2013 and David Alaba's cruel late strike.

Westwood and Randolph were unused subs on that occasion. In the race to cap 22, the advantage could now be back with Westwood.

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