Ireland's striker stats a cause for concern ahead of crucial Austria test
O'Neill's men have enjoyed a successful campaign so far but face the Austrians today relying on scraps up front due to a shortage of front men
The retirement of Ireland's record goalscorer Robbie Keane was always going to leave manager Martin O'Neill and the country with an enormous void.
A combination of three main strikers, and his wingers, have just about kept the goals flowing for Ireland since Keane left the international stage with a goal against Oman in August, and they have propped up the last two qualifying campaigns.
But when Shane Long broke his metatarsal at Middlesbrough as Southampton's season petered out last month, the lack of options among the frontmen within the Irish squad was exposed once more.
Ipswich Town forward David McGoldrick's subsequent injury and withdrawal from the squad last week leaves O'Neill with just two recognised strikers in the panel when he names the team to face Austria tonight. Kevin Doyle was the starter against Iceland in March but he has been left out again. He has now played in just two games in as many years.
The Ireland manager has the option of using James McClean to partner Jon Walters and he has been an effective makeshift foraging foil over the last 12 months. The in-form West Brom winger is more likely to start in his preferred wide position against the Austrians, but his adaptability as a striker is an undoubted strength O'Neill has enjoyed utilising.
And as McClean proved against Uruguay last week, he can finish. It was his fourth goal for Ireland this season, following his winner against today's opponents in the first leg in Vienna and a brace in Moldova in October.
Robbie Brady has provided few goals from his set-pieces, despite a good assist record with Norwich City last season, but since he scored two against Italy and France in the European Championship finals 12 months ago, Burnley's record signing has scored only once himself, and that was in the 4-0 victory against Oman, the same night Keane netted the last of his 68 goals for his country.
Keane's departure from the international game handed the key goalscoring responsibility to Long and Walters, but while no one can question their overall contribution to the team, statistically the lack of goals from the recognised strikers in competitive games in this campaign is alarming.
Between them, Long and Walters scored seven goals in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, as O'Neill gently shifted Keane to bench duties and increasingly looked to build a partnership between the two established Premier League strikers at his disposal.
In this World Cup qualifying group, the pair have started four games, including three together against Serbia, Georgia and Moldova, but they have scored just one goal between them, which was Long's goal in Moldova. But then Ireland have scored only seven in the five games so far and still top the group.
O'Neill says he is delighted to have Walters back fit. "He was a talisman in the Euro qualifiers but unfortunately picked up an injury in training before the competition started. He played little bits here and there but overall was not fit then and it is nice to have him on board again. He has been terrfiic since I came on board and before that. To coin a Roy phrase, he's a great warrior but has great ability and has helped us."
A year ago, with Walters struggling for full match fitness for the European Championship finals, O'Neill turned to Daryl Murphy, who had been in the form of his career at Portman Road under Mick McCarthy. He started two of the games in France but has still scored just one goal for Ireland in 25 appearances.
However, the former Waterford United striker has put behind him his cruel expulsion from the Ireland squad by Giovanni Trapattoni who, typically, dropped him without explanation or apology.
Unfortunately, a dream move to Newcastle last summer quickly turned sour when the one-time Sunderland man suffered a recurrence of a calf problem within weeks of his return to the North East. He did score five goals for the Geordies, some of them vital, on their quick exit from the Championship but he only played 14 games for Rafa Benitez, who last week told Murphy he can quit St James' Park.
Murphy, who has a year left on his Newcastle contract, will find no shortage of suitors in the second tier, including former club Ipswich, but at 34 will have to decide how much he wants to play, against how much he wants to be paid.
But it says a great deal about Murphy's standing within the Ireland squad that he is desperate to continue playing next season, even if it means taking a significant pay cut for the last two seasons of his career. With McGoldrick suffering another injury setback - the Ipswich striker has only made one substitute appearance, in Austria, in this campaign - Murphy is the third-choice striker.
"I will need to think about that when I go back," he said in the build-up to today's game. "I will need to be playing football, especially if we qualify. There can't be any greater incentive to go out and play games and try to play in a World Cup, but we are thinking too far ahead here now. Hopefully that's what will happen.
"You look at the games I have played in, and the manager has played me in big games, and I have done all right. It's more that he knows he can trust me, he knows I am going to give everything whether I start or come off the bench, he knows what he is going to get from me and he knows he can depend on me.
"I don't think he needs to pull me aside and tell me that he needs me. I am in the squad and happy to be there and hopefully help out in any way I can.
"We all know the story with the previous manager and it was a strange one. I was third-choice striker, the first sub to come on and, all of a sudden, I wasn't in the squad for however many years. I will probably never know why but that is all in the past. Under the new management everybody has been given a fresh start and if you are doing well for your club, you have got a chance."
Like Walters, Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Keane, Murphy is the wrong side of 30 now, but of course he wishes to preserve his career, and those aching calfs, for a shot at Russia.
But where is the next generation?
Former Ireland international Mick Martin, who has been involved in scouting senior and junior Irish and opposition players for Ireland managers for more than 20 years, has warned that it is becoming increasingly difficult for young Irish players to make the breakthrough at English clubs. As we knew at the time, and have had confirmed since, Robbie Keane was a phenomenal one-off.
Martin's brief now is to watch the development of 16 to 21-year-olds. Many a Saturday morning watching academy and reserve team football, hoping to spot the little gem who will one day play for his country.
"The problem we have always had, even in my day, is finding strikers," he said. "We have always had plenty of defenders and midfielders, but strikers have always been at a minimum, so back then we had Ray Treacey, Don Givens and Mickey Walsh, then Frank Stapleton and Mick Robinson came in, and they were followed by Tony Cascarino, Niall Quinn and John Aldridge.
"Of the current group, Jon Walters and Shane Long would be considered the main pair but there is not a lot hanging around. Simon Cox had a go, Daryl Murphy has had a run, but now Robbie has gone you are looking to replace a prolific goalscorer, who scored goals for all his clubs and his country. He probably was a one-off. He was certainly a top-class player whose record will probably stand forever.
"We have strikers who contribute in other ways with their running and hold-up play, but they are not as prolific. However strikers are reliant on midfield players creating chances and in the system we play - and this is not being critical of the players - we don't really have creative players as we have had through the generations, like Liam Brady, Roy Keane, Kevin Sheedy or Jason McAteer.
"Those players scored goals and created chances and we have an abundance of workman-like, energetic players. I don't think Glenn Whelan has scored a goal for Ireland for 40 years! Wes Hoolahan is a bright little button, but he is not getting any younger.
"We are always looking to identify players and check their progress but it is very hard to get into the first teams, never mind in the Premier League, just in the Championship. The pressure is huge and you have to be exceptional to progress.
"Players are like horses. They look good when they are young but you have to keep going and developing. What we have at our disposal is what we have to get the best out of. There are maybe one or two potential little gems, but I must say most of them are defenders or midfielders."
Sunday Indo Sport