Monday 20 January 2020

O'Neill calls on rookies to lift Coleman gloom

Captain's woe dominates manager's thoughts ahead of Iceland friendly
Aiden McGeady
Aiden McGeady
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Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The subdued demeanour said it all. Martin O'Neill had things other than Iceland on his mind.

A second hospital visit to Seamus Coleman had confirmed that the Ireland captain was down in the dumps, struggling to get his head around the devastation of a double fracture to his leg.

It's clear that O'Neill is finding it hard to come to terms with it himself.

"Seamus' injury has obviously cast a shadow," he sighed. "It has cast a shadow over everything.

"I think it cast a shadow over Friday's game, and that was an important competitive game. So you can imagine the shadow it would cast over a friendly game."

That was the tone of a Monday morning gathering at Abbotstown after a brief training session, the first since the costly scoreless draw with Wales. The enthusiasm levels for this evening's friendly with Iceland have been affected by Coleman's woe.

At one point, O'Neill acknowledged that club managers view these type of exercises with trepidation because they can only see the pitfalls. Coleman's campaign-ending injury has brought that line of thinking to the forefront of his mind.

He knows that friendly matches could have an impact on ranking positions, especially if Ireland end up in a World Cup play-off, and a good performance to go with a result would be welcome. But you sense that a clean bill of health would be as satisfying an outcome as any of the above.

The 65-year-old has always been wary about throwing caps around like confetti, but he might have different factors in mind from a risk management perspective as he surveys his options.

To paraphrase Teresa Mannion's infamous weather-beaten report, he may not make unnecessary selections. John O'Shea, Glenn Whelan, Jon Walters and the injured James McCarthy have gone. Other regulars will be spared a full workout.

"It's a friendly game and some lads who played on Friday who are still with us certainly won't start and may not participate at all," he cautioned.

The hope, from O'Neill's perspective, is that some light can appear from the darkness. This is an opportunity for fresh faces to emerge from the shadow hanging over this fixture.

Food chain

New caps will be handed out this evening. Conor Hourihane is certain to start in the centre of midfield, continuing his rise up the ranks after a January switch from Barnsley to Aston Villa moved the Corkman up the food chain.

Hourihane suffered setbacks in his youth and failed to break in at either Sunderland or Ipswich, with Roy Keane working with him at both clubs.

This will be a proud evening for the 26-year-old, who dropped down to Plymouth to rebuild his career before clambering up the ladder.

Another Corkman, John Egan, is a strong contender to win his first cap. He followed a similar path by using Gillingham as a landing pad from the fall of an injury-laden spell at Sunderland. Egan is now playing Championship football with Brentford.

Alex Pearce should start at centre-half, and the identity of his partner will depend on whether O'Neill feels that Richard Keogh needs a game.

Andy Boyle is the other candidate, with O'Neill indicating that both of Preston's recruits from Dundalk are in the shake-up too, with Daryl Horgan also eyeing an Ireland debut.

It's possible they may have to wait until the second half for that moment, however.

Aiden McGeady is expected to figure, and management are also ready to give Aberdeen's Jonny Hayes a spin.

The 29-year-old Dubliner made his breakthrough in the March friendlies a year ago, coming off the bench to feature against Switzerland and Slovakia, and after waiting patiently for another chance, his reward is likely to be a starting berth.

Kevin Doyle and Shane Long are the only two fit strikers and have a good partnership, but the absence of alternatives mean it's conceivable they will rotate duties.

The likes of Eunan O'Kane, Callum O'Dowda and the recalled Stephen Gleeson will also be viewing the meeting with the Euro 2016 surprise packages as the opportunity to add to their limited experience at this level.

"This is their opportunity," said O'Neill, speaking generally rather than focusing on a specific individual. "It's an international game of some standing and it's up to them.

"You don't want to give out caps just because they are there, you want them to earn it. Some players have just come into the squad like the two lads at Preston and they have acquitted themselves well in training and they are just starting out their international careers.

"Some lads who have been around the squad and not played regularly may play as well. Whatever time they get, they will look to impress."

Cyrus Christie has big shoes to fill at right-full, with O'Neill expressing his faith in the Derby County player without disguising the fact that he would prefer not to be relying on him for the rest of the road to Russia.

"I haven't given it a great deal of thought," he said. "Seamus is very hard to replace as one of the best full-backs in Europe. Cyrus is a very good player, strong going forward, and he is capable of taking that step."

Robbie Brady will captain the side and is expected to take over from his Burnley colleague Stephen Ward at left back, although O'Neill is unsure about who will wear the armband for the competitive tests ahead.

There will be enough time to ponder those decisions when this game is out of the way. But Friday's drama highlighted the folly of thinking too far ahead with any certainty.

One-game suspensions happen, but half a campaign without an inspirational figure is a setback that has rocked the Irish camp.

Introducing fresh faces tonight will function as an interesting distraction. They will need to do something really special to take the manager's mind off the subject of the highest-profile absentee.

Irish Independent

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