Wednesday 23 October 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'Capping rookie players to lock them down is sending out the wrong message'

Michael Obafemi. Photo: Getty
Michael Obafemi. Photo: Getty
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Should Declan Rice opt to pursue an international career with England, Ireland's World Cup qualifier with Moldova last October will be remembered for what might have been.

The argument is that Martin O'Neill should have capped Rice in that fixture to remove any doubts about his future. Lock him in, basically, although that choice of language always seems a tad unfortunate. It's a flawed argument, even if it was slightly surprising to hear O'Neill say that the thought hadn't crossed his mind.

Then again, he would probably have been sacked if Ireland didn't deliver in that Dublin date just three days shy of the vital win in Cardiff.

There was a feel-good story towards the end of that match when Seán Maguire was brought in for a debut with the points in the bag.

It would have sent out a curious message to Maguire if he was told to stand aside as the final switch favoured a teenager whose only Premier League appearance in the previous month was a minute off the bench against Huddersfield.

Imagine how frustrated the Kilkenny man would have been.

There are two different strands to this debate. Yes, there are times where it does appear that this management team are reactive rather than proactive when it comes to issues of selection.

It is their responsibility as football men to spot a talented player that is capable of improving beyond their current position. This is relevant with regard to those individuals sourced in the League of Ireland.

O'Neill is right to say he has taken the league seriously, and showed faith in both Daryl Horgan and Graham Burke by including them in squads while they were here - the latter got to play.

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They've endured mixed success across the water and have been bombed out as a consequence, even though the Irish boss concedes that in some cases they might just be unlucky in terms of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There's a balance to be struck between weighting club form and maintaining faith in a player. Maybe he has just decided they are not good enough but the chopping and changing is inconsistent. O'Neill does really seem to rate Dundalk winger Michael Duffy and, ironically enough, he is now going through a transfer process to commit his long-term future to the Republic of Ireland. But the main point here is that there will now be a clamour for Michael Obafemi to be capped against Denmark because he's involved at Premier League level and might one day be wanted by England and Nigeria.

That weekend vindication from Mark Hughes has put the pressure on O'Neill to get moving. Obafemi's name had dropped off the radar since his brief debut last term and he missed the recent Ireland U-19 gathering due to illness. Troy Parrott and Adam Idah's goals were the story of that gathering. But Obafemi is now being told he's ready for senior consideration.

One could argue that it's pragmatic and that other nations are not shy about doing it - Giovanni Trapattoni did once throw James McCarthy on late in a match with Macedonia - but it's a cynical policy.

As O'Neill said himself, players know the rules now. They can't be hurried into a decision they might regret. His suspicion is that Declan Rice might have stalled if Ireland put pressure on early and his example has played out so publicly that every footballer is well aware of the implications of their actions.

"I will end up capping 15-year-olds in competitive football just so they will play for Ireland for the next 15 years," said an incredulous O'Neill, when told that the Moldova match is now part of the Rice discussion. "You have to merit getting into the side."

Still, the decision to name Jimmy Dunne in a senior squad was influenced by stories linking him with a switch to Northern Ireland. "It would be ridiculous of me to say that there wouldn't be a part of that," said O'Neill, explaining his decision.

Dundalk man Dunne has impressed with Hearts this term, and Obafemi is a talent too, but there must be other Irish players wondering if eligibility for another country would come in handy as it would hasten the need for their inclusion.

This is a problem as there are competing forces when it comes to this subject matter. Capping players in case they turn out to be good will infuriate 100pc committed Irishmen that would kill for the chance. But the prospect of a Rice snub is increasing paranoia to the point where managers are damned either way.

International football is the loser.

Irish Independent

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