Monday 23 October 2017

Comment: Coleman's injury leaves a big void as captain - Ireland's fan favourite can fill it

Jack O'Toole

Not since Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu spear tackled Brian O’Driscoll into the unforgiving Christchurch turf have Irish people been so galvanised by one particular challenge.

O’Driscoll was stretchered off in the first minute of the first test on the Lions' utterly disastrous tour of New Zealand in 2005, and after 12 long years, the Irish nation has once again circled the wagons and gathered the pitchforks in pursuit of public enemy number one, Aston Villa full-back Neil Taylor.

In the aftermath of Ireland’s 0-0 draw with Wales at the Aviva Stadium on Friday, questions were raised over Taylor, his character, what type of player he is, his history of controversial tackles and how long he should be banned for, but in the midst of it all, very few pointed out Coleman’s loss as a leader.

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill certainly did, and he’d know, claiming Coleman to be a phenomenal captain who is having a phenomenal season, both of which are true, but in the wake of his loss, who succeeds the Everton defender as Ireland captain?

Contenders

After John O’Shea and Robbie Keane spent the entire Euro 2016 qualifiers throwing the captain’s armband to each other like a pair of socks, Coleman emerged as Ireland’s natural leader towards the tail-end of that campaign and assumed the captaincy for Ireland's Euro 2016 group stage finale against Italy in Lyon.

Coleman’s ascension to the role had been coming for some time before the game, and while it was certainly warranted three games into the Euros, it was almost unquestioned by the time RTE cameras had panned to him standing in the tunnel just minutes before the Italy game.

With Ireland’s tournament hopes hinging on the 90 minutes that followed, and with a 3-0 drubbing by Belgium still fresh in the memory, Coleman stood at the front of the Irish line across from Italian skipper Leonardo Bonucci with his hands on his hips, his feet shoulder width apart, and his eyes focused like a laser on the task that lay ahead of him.

For all of RTE’s pre-match build up and hoopla, the do or die circumstances that are generally synonymous with their football coverage, five seconds on Coleman overshadowed 45 minutes of Dunphy and company in terms of underlining just how important the game was.

A late Robbie Brady winner sealed Ireland a 1-0 win over Antonio Conte’s side, but it also secured Coleman’s future as captain, a role in which he has excelled in since given the armband by O’Neill.

But with the Killybegs native sidelined for the foreseeable future, there isn’t exactly a lunch line of contenders there to take his place as captain.

Conventional wisdom would point to former captain John O’Shea, the guy with 117 caps, but O’Shea has only started two of five games this campaign, and was largely selected on Friday due to the absence of Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy.

Similarly, Glenn Whelan, who is also undoubtedly a senior figure within the Irish squad, is no longer a guaranteed starter in the Irish midfield after he was dropped for the Georgia game in October.

Logic suggests that you can’t captain from the bench, although O’Neill has certainly meddled with that theory in the past, using Robbie Keane as a squad captain while O’Shea actually wore the armband on the pitch, but it’s still hard to see Whelan captaining in the absence of Coleman, especially if James McCarthy, Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and Harry Arter are all available in midfield.

That leaves fan favourite and cult hero Jon Walters as the next in line, the no-nonsense, throwback centre forward who has endeared himself to Irish fans on countless occasions over the last few years.

An elder statesman in a team that has become increasingly youthful over the last 12 months, Walters is one of only four players to have started every game so far this campaign; the other three being James McClean, Darren Randolph and the injured Coleman.

Walters has the experience, temperament, and the respect of the playing group to captain Ireland, O’Neill now needs to make it a formality.

Online Editors

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