Sunday 22 September 2019

The changing of the guard is just around the corner for aging Ireland

Ireland players (l-r) Cyrus Christie, Rob Elliot, Conor Hourihane, Eunan O’Kane, Kevin Long, Callum O’Dowda, Richard Keogh and Darren Randolph at training. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland players (l-r) Cyrus Christie, Rob Elliot, Conor Hourihane, Eunan O’Kane, Kevin Long, Callum O’Dowda, Richard Keogh and Darren Randolph at training. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

At the end of every Irish campaign, the subject of international retirement becomes an easy talking point.

It used to annoy or amuse Robbie Keane depending on his mood. He'd been around the block for so long that when the suggestion was first put to him, his 30th birthday was approaching.

History has proven he was the wrong man to ask. Keane reporting for Ireland duty was as habitual as Norm dropping into the bar in 'Cheers'.

But it had to come to an end eventually, and it clearly pained the Dubliner to do so. His legendary status earned him a farewell friendly against Oman but there will be no such send-off for the players that slip away when Ireland's World Cup interest draws to a close.

There is lingering hope that Martin O'Neill's side can beat the odds and make the Russian dream possible. That is the focus.

However, it is entirely possible that the week leading up to tomorrow's game with Moldova is the last time that several senior players are in Dublin to represent their country.

The significant changing of the guard has been coming given the age profile of the dressing room. Ireland had the oldest squad at Euro 2012 and Euro 2016. There's little chance of a 29-year-old member of this group being asked if he is tempted to concentrate on the club game to prolong his career.

In truth, the players in that general age bracket now almost feel like the new boys. David McGoldrick is 29 and James McClean, Ciaran Clark and David Meyler hit that mark at their next birthday.

It still feels as though we're only getting to know them - a bit different to how Keane was viewed at that stage with over a decade under the belt. Damien Duff dealt with similar attention.

Keane and Shay Given did give it up after Euro 2016 and missing out finished things for David Forde too. Kevin Doyle gave up the game completely for very different reasons last week.

John O'Shea opted to stay and help for this campaign even though he sensed that he wasn't going to be a regular and he was referenced by O'Neill this week. It's safe to assume that the 36-year-old is approaching the chequered flag. But he's probably not alone.

"Well, I think there was talk after the Euros that one or two might drop away," said O'Neill. "Of course, age catches up with you. I think it's just a natural progression that one or two will probably end up calling it a day.

"I think, of their own volition, some of the players - John (O'Shea) and a couple of other boys around the same age - might think, I am not certain of playing any more, there will be a new look again after the World Cup qualifying, whenever it may be, and I think there would be a natural exodus. That would be my view."

O'Shea was willing to contribute to the Russian attempt while armed with the knowledge there was no guarantee he would be on the plane if it was successful. Not every player will adopt that mindset. For what it's worth, he will be 39 when the Euro 2020 finals comes around.

The fact that Ireland will play a handful of their tournament games in Dublin if they succeed in making it back into the 24-team soiree - which is being spread around the continent in a one-off initiative - might tempt others to stick it out.

But Wes Hoolahan will be 38 when the competition kicks off. Daryl Murphy will be 37. Glenn Whelan 36. Jon Walters and Stephen Ward will turn 37 and 35 respectively later in 2020. Aiden McGeady has been on the scene longer than all of those individuals bar O'Shea and he will be 34.

Therefore, if any of those named above opt to play on, it will come with the health warning that the final prize might be a bridge too far.

On top of that, changes to the international calendar mean that the proper qualifiers don't kick off until March 2019 - the new Nations League is what's on the schedule next autumn.

That will be the sobering consequence of failure in Cardiff. Ireland will face a 17-month wait until their next game of real substance as the Nations League concept will take a bit of getting used to and the importance of the matches will only really become clear some time after the event as they are basically a back-door option if regular qualifying goes badly.

In that context, it's not a stretch to declare that the end of an era is approaching. Granted, a couple of thirtysomethings retain a sense that they are making up for lost time.

Murphy, a prime example, signed a new three-year deal with Nottingham Forest in the summer and is sick that his career coincided with Giovanni Trapattoni's tenure. Hoolahan is never going to reach the caps total that he should have.

The problem for O'Neill if he stays in charge is that there isn't exactly a flowing production line to make any transition seamless. He's picking them because, ultimately, he still needs them.

"You're hoping for younger fresh blood, boys who cannot only step in but eventually be as good as the players who are leaving," he says.

Scott Hogan, Sean Maguire and Aiden O'Brien are the new faces this week and O'Neill and Roy Keane have spoken about their positive impact on the wider group.

"It's nice and fresh and nice to see some kids coming in, you can see the excitement and enthusiasm," said O'Neill. "I think it helps the senior players who like to see it. Eventually, I suppose, you are hoping that over the course of time that these players coming in become fully-fledged international players as the older players drop away."

He sees unfinished products. Hogan is 25 and Maguire and O'Brien are 23. For a comparison, England can call on Harry Kane (24) or Marcus Rashford (19). Their CVs are on another level.

Modern Ireland squads are packed with late bloomers. O'Neill feels that Hogan, who was non-league just four years ago, can greatly improve his hold-up play.

The prefix as he spoke of 'young Maguire' and 'young O'Brien' shone a light on his view of their experience levels.

The high-stakes nature of qualifying and the pressure that comes with it has made O'Neill reluctant to throw an untried player in at the deep end. We are approaching a stage where the Irish manager will have no other option.

Irish Independent

The Left Wing: Ireland's fullback dilemma, World Cup bonding and the squad standby list

Also in Sport