Tony Considine: What changes can we expect to Ireland's first XI under Mick McCarthy in 2019?
When the first Ireland squad of Mick McCarthy’s second reign begin to gather on St. Patrick’s Day, they’ll have less than a week and no friendly matches to prepare for their Euro 2020 qualifying opener.
And while the fixture Gods couldn’t have been kinder in pairing Ireland with Gibraltar the following Saturday, before their first home game against Georgia on Tuesday March 26th, it still leaves very little time to try out anything new.
So, how different is McCarthy’s first team likely to be from that who O’Neill sent out against Denmark? While injuries and suspensions ruled out regulars such as Shane Long and James McClean for the Danish clash, their squad places at the very least will be secure.
But what about the eleven who started? Where might they fit in with the new boss and, out of those who didn't play or make the squad, who will benefit from his appointment and whose situation may change under the new regime?
Final Martin O'Neill starting XI
Randolph, Coleman, Duffy, Keogh, Long, Stevens, Christie, Brady, Hendrick, O'Dowda, O'Brien
WIth previous rivals for the number 1 shirt, Rob Elliot and Kieren Westwood out of favour for Newcastle and Sheffield Wednesday respectively, the Middlesbrough stopper’s position looks as safe as houses. Two players at opposite ends of their careers, Hearts’ Colin Doyle and Liverpool's young keeper Caoimhin Kelleher filled the reserve spots in Martin O’Neill’s last squad but neither has a credible claim to be first choice.
The fact that Randolph is having an excellent season for Boro, despite a recent howler against Aston Villa means that Mick McCarthy will look no further than the Bray man as his last line of defence.
The Killybegs man was often namechecked by Martin O’Neill as his one “world-class” player, particularly when emphasising how much Ireland missed their injured captain in the second half of their ultimately doomed World Cup campaign. While world-class may be stretching it, there’s no doubt that Coleman has been Ireland’s best and most consistent player in recent years.
It’s unlikely that McCarthy will look to anyone else to captain his side and Coleman will remain one of the first names on the team-sheet when fit, despite some recent criticism from Everton fans. With Coleman not getting forward as quickly as before, could he move in to the right of a defensive three to free Matt Doherty further up the pitch?
If Big Mick was tempted to look to anyone else as captain material then it’s likely that Duffy would be that man. With the exception of an idiotic sending off against Crystal Palace, the big centre-half has had his best top level season yet, both at the back and from set-pieces in the opposition box.
While O’Neill tended to look to Duffy as our most potent attacking threat towards the end of his reign and wasn’t averse to throwing him up front to try and get on the end of a long ball, the hope would be that a more nuanced approach will deem that tactic unnecessary. Either way, Duffy’s place looks secure.
Keogh is a no-nonsense defender that McCarthy probably sees reflections of his own playing style in and will certainly be there or thereabouts when it comes to partnering Duffy in central defence.
With Derby chasing promotion from the Championship under Frank Lampard, Keogh has been virtually ever present despite doubts over his place at the start of the season and has credited Lampard with improvements in his game since.
Long was one of three central defenders selected by O’Neill in Aarhus with a clean sheet seeming to be top of the list of priorities. While the Burnley centre-half has had plenty of game time in the Premier League over the last couple of seasons, it has generally been when either James Tarkowski or Ben Mee has been injured or when Mee has covered Stephen Ward’s left-back position.
A regular staring place under McCarthy will most likely be dependent on whether the Cork native can nail down a regular starting place or remains a backup option for Sean Dyche.
Another defender chasing promotion from the Championship, this time with Sheffield United, the ex-Shamrock Rovers left back has admirably rebuilt his career after being released by Aston Villa. A drop down as low as League Two with Portsmouth proved astute as a promotion campaign resulted in a 2017 move to the Championship with the Blades.
Stevens has thrived at Championship level and finally made his international breakthrough towards the end of O’Neill’s reign. But a starting place in the upcoming campaign may well come down to the system that McCarthy decides to deploy.
The sixth(!) defender picked for the November scoreless draw, pretty much everything that needs to be said about O’Neill’s attempts to convert the Fulham right-back into a central midfielder has already been said.
It’s unfair to judge Christie on his game but limited efforts in the engine room. The fact that he is a regular Premier League starter will mean that he will be in consideration. But the fact that his natural position is one where Ireland already has two of the best operators in that division playing means that Cyrus will have to settle for a place on the bench.
A Euro 2016 era Robbie Brady would be an automatic starter regardless of who the manager is. Unfortunately, we haven't seen that since those finals in France with a loss of form followed by a year’s absence with an awful injury.
Both McCarthy and Burnley boss Sean Dyche will be hoping that a fit and firing Brady can push their teams back to their best in 2019. Once the Dubliner stays fit, a starting place will be assured. Accomodating both Brady and James McClean has been an isue in the past and given the opposition, a start in the centre isn't out of the question.
SImilarly to his club teammate Brady, a 2016 style Hendrick would be a shoe-in for a starting place in midfield. The Dubliner suffered somewhat from being moved into something resembling a number 10 role for Burnley and a more defensive holding role for Ireland with neither seeing to suit him as much the traditional attacking role he played in France.
And as with Brady, McCarthy will be hopeful that he can work with Hendrick to get him back to somewhere approaching his best form for his country.
Although he became a regular starter towards the end of the O’Neill era, O’Dowda has really only shown what he’s capable of in flashes.
That starting place will now come under threat and the grandson of legendary Dundalk tenor, Brendan O’Dowda will be hoping that the new manager can get more of a tune out of him than the last one did.
The Millwall striker will go down in the record books as the last goalscorer of O’Neill’s reign with his clever header in Poland last September ushering in a run of four goalless games before the curtain came down.
O’Brien has mainly been operating off the bench for his club since then and it looks like similar may be the best he can hope for come the Gibraltar clash in March.
Players likely to benefit
It’s baffling that a 26 year old Matt Doherty only has 4 Ireland caps considering he made his Premier League debut for Wolves in 2011 and had played 5 seasons at Championship level before returning to the top flight this season. Little wonder that the right-back went on the record during O’Neill’s reign wondering if his "face just doesn't fit".
The fact that it was Mick McCarthy who brought Doherty from Bohemians to Wolves and gave him that debut means that September’s Premier League player of the month will surely come into contention to start once the qualifying campaign kicks off. Currently operating as an advanced wing back and having played left back in the past, there are options to explore in an attempt to accommodate both Coleman and himself.
It was McCarthy who encouraged McGoldrick to declare for Ireland after the striker, who had been adopted by a family from the Irish community in the UK as a child, discovered he also had biological Irish roots while researching his birth family tree.
His Irish career has been stop-start due to injury with only six caps since making his debut in 2014. Having played 161 times for McCarthy at Ipswich, McGoldrick moved to Sheffield United during the summer and has played a leading role in their promotion chase with 8 goals so far, including 3 in his last four games. His early season form wasn’t enough to earn him a recall from O’Neill for the Nations League but he’ll surely earn a squad place at worst come March and may well start.
Whatever about his relationship with Martin O’Neill, Arter will surely be glad to see the back of Roy Keane following their well publicised clash and his subsequent self imposed exile.
Although Arter is yet to show his best form for Ireland, it will be interesting to see if the change in management can get something more out of him. While his career may have stalled somewhat and he’s currently involved in a relegation scrap on loan to Cardiff, Ireland aren’t blessed with Premier League central midfielders and McCarthy will be hoping to see the Arter who’s Bournemouth form had Paul Merson calling for him to be called up by England despite the fact the midfielder had already played for Ireland against them.
Given his ongoing injury problems at 33 and his role in leaking the WhatsApp-gate story that gave the world details of the Roy Keane scrap with Harry Arter and Jon Walters, no one would have been surprised if Ward had faded away from the international set up had O’Neill remained in charge.
But having been brought to Wolves from Bohemians by McCarthy, who also converted him from a forward player to a defender, Ward may now feel he still has something to offer. A first choice for six seasons at Wolves under McCarthy shows that there’s certainly a trust there.
Ifs, buts and maybes
Fairly or not, O’Neill’s approach to Jack Grealish initially and then Declan Rice came under scrutiny with opportunities to cap both players at senior level when they were embedded in the underage set-up passed up on. Grealish has long since gone and Rice's future remains in the balance as he considers his next move after his three friendly caps.
McCarthy proved willing to gamble on youthful players in his first spell but they were of the quality of Robbie Keane and Damien Duff. Whether similar situations to Grealish and Rice can be avoided in future remains to be seen. It will be interesting to see if McCarthy’s December meeting with with the player went as well as reported and if his future is in green. If it is, then he will surely start.
Similar to Rice, Kelly raised eyebrows when he declined a call up to the senior squad for the Turkey friendly in March, citing a "personal reason." While O’Neill stated that the p[layer was holding out for an England call up, the player said it had "nothing to do with feeling English or Irish" and that he would "see how it goes" about playing for Ireland in future.
While Kelly has been playing regularly for Reading in the Championship this season, an England call would seem a very long shot at this stage and it’s likely the new Ireland boss will at least be contacting the former U19 and U21 international.
The Leeds striker has been capped by both Ireland and England at underage level but never came into the reckoning under O'Neill despite reports he had been scouted in March this year. Although he has struggled with injury this season, he's proved to be a very capable Championship level striker in the past.
While O'Neill admitted to not having "had contact with him", McCarthy has stated that he intends to meet the player. Given Ireland's paucity in striking options, Bamford would certainly get an opportunity to prove himself in the Euro qualifiers should he decide to declare.
After earning three caps under Giovanni Trapattoni in 2010, Sheridan has been on a nomadic tour of European football’s less fashionable destinations with spells in Bulgaria, Cyprus and currently Poland. Over that time, he was been one of the few recent Irish players to play in the group stages of the Champions League with APOEL in 2014.
While this wasn’t enough to catch Martin O’Neill’s eye, his form in a Polish League ranked not far below Scotland’s SPL, coupled with Ireland’s struggles in front of goal means that he could yet be a wildcard for McCarthy. But having just left Jagiellonia Białystok, his next club choice will make or break the off-chance he may have.
Possible starting XI v Gibraltar (3-5-2)
Randolph, Coleman, Duffy, Keogh, Doherty, Arter (or Rice if available), Hendrick, Brady, McClean, Robinson, McGoldrick