Wednesday 13 December 2017

Glenn Whelan facing axe as Martin O'Neill ponders options for Austria

Strong case to make room for both Arter and Hoolahan in engine room

Harry Arter has strong claims to win a place in Ireland midfield ahead of Glenn Whelan. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Harry Arter has strong claims to win a place in Ireland midfield ahead of Glenn Whelan. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

"If Austria allow us to go with 15 players, I'll go with it," said Martin O'Neill, with a grin.

He was speaking in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium last Sunday night, in good form after the impressive friendly win over Uruguay.

Under pressure: Darren Raldolph. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Under pressure: Darren Raldolph. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

In the past fortnight, both O'Neill and Roy Keane have spoken in frustrated terms about just how often they spend talking about players who are absent from their dressing room.

This summer window has been different. Admittedly, if it all goes wrong against Austria, it's plausible that the names of Seamus Coleman and Shane Long will feature in the post-mortem. Ciaran Clark and James McCarthy are regular starters, too.


Nevertheless, O'Neill does have quantity this week in terms of players he can really trust, and they showed a quality against Uruguay that has presented the manager with a couple of headaches in important positions.

Midfield is one area where big decisions have to be made, primarily due to the growing case for Harry Arter, who was absent for March's draw with Wales, along with Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan.

Glenn Whelan and Jeff Hendrick manned the ship against Wales along with David Meyler and ingenuity was lacking.

There is also the goalkeeping issue, with Keiren Westwood's form at Sheffield Wednesday and a solid cameo against Uruguay putting pressure on Darren Randolph, who endured a sticky spell at West Ham at the end of the season and was guilty of an error of judgement to hand Uruguay a goal.

"I have plenty to contemplate," said O'Neill when asked directly about the goalkeeping shirt. "I don't think I should really be discussing that particular issue now.

"Obviously I knew Westy at club level. He's a really talented goalkeeper. Just get his head right and he's great.

"He's really fine now and I think he's got over the team losing out in the play-offs. As for Darren, I don't think he's let us down too often."

If O'Neill was bound completely by loyalty, he might have turned to David Forde when Shay Given pulled up in that famous qualifier with Germany in October 2015.

Instead, he turned to a player with no competitive experience and the rest is history.

Drafting in Westwood would be a much less risky proposition in comparison.

It wouldn't be a huge surprise if Randolph retained the shirt, but it would be a bigger one if Arter was excluded.

There has to be significance in O'Neill giving the Bournemouth player a full workout last Sunday and his inclusion would mean an established squad member sitting it out.

Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick are always picked when available and Brady was selected as a wide player last Sunday.

If O'Neill goes with Jon Walters through the centre again, using Brady and McClean on the flanks would give him four players for three midfield places - Hendrick, Arter, Whelan and Hoolahan.

Brady will come into that equation if Walters is given the nod on the right and Daryl Murphy takes central responsibility.

There is an assumption that Whelan will play, but it's worth noting that the shield he provides was sacrificed midway through the Euros.

O'Neill went with the energy of McCarthy then and it isn't beyond the realms of possibility that Arter could get the nod next to Hendrick.


That is the plausible route into the side for Hoolahan, with O'Neill's post-match assertion that Ireland needed to be positive and avoid regrets surely giving encouragement to the veteran.

The 65-year-old leaves it late before letting his players know the team and he gave the impression that he still has to run over some things in his own head at this remove.

Another factor is niggling injuries and Whelan left the pitch at half-time against the Uruguayans with a back complaint.

In a switch from the original plan, Ireland will train today and then hold an open training session at the Aviva tomorrow, before a day off on Thursday to recharge the batteries in the long build-up.

"We have a couple of days to think about it," says O'Neill. "The training on Wednesday, the fans thing, will give us another feel of the pitch."

Experienced centre-halves John O'Shea and Richard Keogh did not figure against Uruguay and they are vying to partner Shane Duffy, with a review of Kevin Long's full debut suggesting that the Corkman is viewed as one with a bit of learning to do.

"I thought he didn't do too badly, he'll not mind me saying," said O'Neill,

"He's got certain things to work on. Getting his body shape right for set pieces, for instance - not being square on and not standing beside someone, either. But he's a really good lad. He wants to listen and learn and he's essentially just starting his career."

It's clear that O'Neill views the Austrian test as a game for those with a fuller education.

Experience and common sense tells him it will be a tighter affair than the match against Uruguay, who showed little willingness at times to really put pressure on the Irish midfield.

"We're not going to destroy teams - that's no great secret. We're going to have to fight for every inch," he said.

Misfortune played a big part in his team selection for Wales. The number of contenders putting their hand up has complicated things this time around. But it's a good problem to have.

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