Monday 24 September 2018

The would, could and should of O'Neill's Ireland future

West Ham’s Declan Rice seems certain to earn an Ireland call-up. Photo: Getty Images
West Ham’s Declan Rice seems certain to earn an Ireland call-up. Photo: Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The snow may be out of sync with the regular calendar, but it is fitting in the sense that Irish football's long winter is only drawing to a close.

Next Thursday, Martin O'Neill will name his first squad since the pain of World Cup elimination and it's expected there will be a bit of spring cleaning involved in the selection process.

Ireland take on Turkey in Antalya and O'Neill has indicated that he will bring an experimental squad. In the course of the messy business surrounding his future, that much was at least clear.

Wes Hoolahan and Daryl Murphy have called time on their international careers while John O'Shea and Glenn Whelan are expected to retire. The intentions of Jon Walters remain unclear. There are others who might be phased out whether they like it or not.

O'Neill has indicated he is excited about bringing in some youngsters, much as the definition of the term could be tackled. The rump of the prospective new faces are in their mid-twenties with extensive enough CVs already. In reality, 2018 will see them emerge from the periphery as opposed to from nowhere.

The Derryman might spring a surprise or two - the fresh availability of the likes of Hull's Will Keane can muddy prediction waters - but the hand at his disposal is no state secret. The relevant players should have an idea of where they stand.

SHOULD PLAY IN TURKEY

Declan Rice

The call-up with the power to bring the average age down. Rice is an Irish-qualified teenager in the Premier League, which immediately marks him down as a unique talent. It appears he is committed to pursuing his international career with Ireland despite Gareth Southgate's confirmation that the Londoner is on the English FA's radar. The hype around Rice has died down a bit over the past month- his last start was on February 23 - but there's no doubting the versatile defender has a big future ahead of him and it needs to be in green.

Matt Doherty

Granted, Ireland are pretty well served at right-back with Seamus Coleman fit again and Cyrus Christie functioning as an effective back-up. But Doherty is thriving with a table-topping Wolves side that is bound for promotion to the Premier League and the ex-Bohemians man has earned a senior international cap after a handful of call-ups without reward. Doherty actually operates on the right of a 3-4-3 for Wolves, but he does have experience on the left side too and that might stand to him in the longer term given Coleman's pivotal status.

Sean Maguire

Ireland's absence of striking options means that Maguire has come to the boil at just the right time. He has been absent since November with a hamstring injury that halted his momentum, but the Kilkenny man is rated by O'Neill and he's spoken of how the Turkey trip has been part of his motivation in coming back from injury. Preston are on the fringes of the play-off race and have missed Maguire so his fitness will be tested once he returns to action.

Scott Hogan

The Aston Villa attacker is also on course for a first international appearance with Maguire skipping ahead of him when they were in together for the October game against Moldova. Hogan was in the middle of a dry patch with Villa at that point. His fortunes have improved since and Villa have made a decisive move towards promotion from the Premier League. Hogan has struck five times since the turn of the year.

Conor Hourihane

The Cork man has been around the squad for a while but he still counts as a rookie in the sense that he's not firmly established in O'Neill's plans yet. He started friendlies against Iceland and Mexico in 2017, but those came as he was adjusting to life at Aston Villa and the 27-year-old midfielder has improved since. A cameo in Copenhagen was a big of vote of confidence and the next step now is a sustained run in the side. He does offer goals from midfield, a service Ireland have lacked.

SHOULD MAKE THE SQUAD

Alan Browne

The 22-year-old was brought to America last summer and he's progressed considerably over the past nine months. He is a central midfielder that can both operate in a defensive role and in an advanced position with Alex Neil preferring to give him an attacking brief against higher-quality opposition. Browne is an impressive athlete and, while Ireland do have quite a few engine-room options, he's put himself in the picture.

Greg Cunningham

O'Neill and Roy Keane have watched Preston recently when Cunningham and Browne have been the only guaranteed starters so it's reasonable to think they are in their thoughts. Cunningham is just 27, yet it's eight years since his Irish international debut under Giovanni Trapattoni. The left-back is highly regarded at Championship level and while Stephen Ward is first choice, Cunningham is worthy of audition.

Liam Kelly

Reading have gone from promotion chasers to relegation battlers this year so the noise about Kelly has subsided. However, a glance at the long-range strike he scored against Derby last weekend is a reminder that the midfielder has stacks of ability and this is only his second full season at first-team level. With Wes Hoolahan stepping aside, the pint-sized 21-year-old can strengthen Ireland's technical hand. He does operate a little deeper, though.

Alan Judge

It's an unfortunate state of affairs when a player that turns 30 in November can be accurately filed under the newcomers category. But Judge has a good excuse for his slow burn. The late developer was ready to make a real charge at Euro 2016 when his leg was broken by a reckless tackle just two months before the competition - and a month after his Irish bow. He's back playing for Brentford, although only sparingly, and there's a danger Turkey might come too soon.

Connor Ronan

There's room for at least one wildcard and there are options. Rice's West Ham team-mate Josh Cullen is one, but U-21 boss Noel King could do with him as they are preparing for a competitive qualifier. Dropping down the age groups Wales style would cause a stir. Lee O'Connor (17) is highly rated at Manchester United and inviting players of that profile along to train is another route. But while O'Neill does not usually look to League One, he could make an exception for Portsmouth's Connor Ronan - on loan from Wolves - a gifted attacking midfielder who should come into the frame soon.

DOUBTFUL TRAVELLERS

Aiden McGeady

O'Neill has always been a major supporter of McGeady right back to their days at Celtic and has deployed him regularly during his Irish tenure, even while the Glaswegian has been suffering a torrid time at club level. He is only 31 and on course for 100 caps if he hangs around for another campaign. However, he's engaged in a relegation battle with Sunderland and there isn't much for O'Neill to learn about him. There's little to gain from involving him in friendlies.

Richard Keogh

Derby are pushing for promotion and that's a huge opportunity for Keogh to get to the highest level for the first time in his career. In the Irish pecking order, he has fallen behind Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark and Kevin Long and now Rice is pushing for inclusion. The 31-year-old should still be an option, but a week in Turkey is of no real benefit to him. He could be vulnerable in the context of Euro 2020 building.

Paul McShane

The popular member of the squad has drifted in and out of favour under O'Neill and he's likely to always remain available for selection. However, he will be 34 when Euro 2020 comes around and it's difficult to envisage a scenario where McShane suddenly comes out of the pack to jump the queue.

Keiren Westwood

The 33-year-old last played for Sheffield Wednesday at the beginning of December and a fresh setback has removed certainty over his proposed return so O'Neill may have no choice here. Westwood was pushing Darren Randolph this time 12 months ago, but his fitness issues have affected his standing. Manchester United back-up Kieran O'Hara was invited to train with the senior squad in the autumn and is a candidate for a supporting role in this experimental phase.

Irish Independent

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