Sunday 21 July 2019

Comment: If you look at the squad, it's clear that Ireland are now the Norwich of international football

Profile of teams where players in O'Neill's squad are plying trade sums up size of task

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Saturday's meeting with Denmark will bring back the memories for Martin O'Neill.

It was an unfortunate UEFA Nations League draw, as it justifies persistent references to last November's painful World Cup playoff.

There was a reunion aspect to that game too, of course, as Danish manager Age Hareide was an old team-mate and housemate from their time together as players with Norwich in the 1980s.

Hareide stuck the boot in after the second-leg drubbing, thanking Ireland for the space they gave his stars to shine. O'Neill diplomatically brushed off those comments last week.

He is long past reflecting on that night - although he might be asked again in the build-up to Saturday - but we know by now that O'Neill felt that Hareide did have a significant advantage going into that fixture.

The Danes were led out by Christian Eriksen, the Spurs star and Champions League regular, whereas circumstances dictated that Ireland's skipper was David Meyler - who at that stage was not playing regularly at Championship level. That's not to single out Meyler; it's just a reference point.

But it is a pertinent one when you look at the profile of where the Irish squad play their club football now.

There is still an argument that O'Neill could be doing more with his resources, yet it's clear that there are games where the job is to effectively make the team greater than the sum of its parts.

Take, for example, the 32-man provisional squad he has named for the Aviva Stadium games with Denmark and Wales. All but three play their club football in England. The accompanying panel lists the current position of their employers in their respective tables.

With the English football ladder as a reference point (the Premier League is 0-20 in ranking, the Championship is 21-44) the average league placing for the Irish squad rounds up to 29, which is the equivalent of ninth in the Championship.

That's Norwich, topically enough. It possibly ties in with O'Neill's perception of his hand relative to top-tier opponents.

For a valid comparison, we can look at Wales who have just two squad members based outside of the English leagues. The average placing of their squad rounds off at 19 which is where Newcastle stand. And the crucial caveat is that the calculation excludes Gareth Bale. He's worth more than a few places in the table.

The withdrawal of Seamus Coleman has weakened the Irish hand, and comebacks for Robbie Brady and James McCarthy would also improve the profile.

Matt Doherty is the solitary Irish player available this week who is lining out for a club that is positioned in the top half of the Premier League.

He's an ever-present as well; Shane Duffy is the only other Irish top-flight player to be selected by their manager for every fixture. On form, Doherty has a blindingly obvious case for inclusion.

In a wide-open Championship season, the good-news stories are also centred around the defensive players, again highlighting Ireland's main issue.

John Egan and Enda Stevens have thrived for a Sheffield United side that are in good form and reached the summit at the weekend.

The goalscorer was David McGoldrick who could possibly return to the Ireland frame next month. He's the top Irish scorer in that division, albeit with penalties forming the majority of his five goals. Alan Judge is the only offensively-minded player that is featuring for a club in the top half of the second tier, yet he has made just the one start in the league.

There's a cluster of Irishmen toiling down in the nether regions of the division. Callum Robinson's brace for Preston on Saturday was a welcome development as it moved them off bottom spot.

Sean Maguire's unavailability has been flagged as a key factor in their struggles, but it's been a struggle for Alex Neil's side to replicate their performances from last term. The same can be said for Millwall who, like Preston, narrowly missed out on the playoff places just five months ago.

Aiden O'Brien and Shaun Williams had yet to play for Ireland at that juncture, but they were two of the bright spots from September's gathering.

Unfortunately, their club are hovering around the relegation zone and badly needed Saturday's win over managerless Aston Villa.

There is a broader point here that was touched on by Ruud Dokter yesterday. Ireland's reliance on the English game is very one-dimensional.

Denmark have players spread across top leagues around Europe, although they will come to Dublin with three squad members from the Championship too - they have six in the Premier League and Eriksen would be a seventh if he somehow recovered from injury.

Diversity helps. "England shouldn't be the only option," said Dokter. "I would strongly encourage players to go someplace else. Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands.

"I could mention a few names that if they went to these leagues I just mentioned, these nations, they could be in the first team and they would develop."

There are financial and cultural reasons that curb wanderlust. The Championship is where it's at for the Ireland squad right now. It will be a challenge to rise above it.

Irish Independent

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