Tuesday 17 July 2018

Top men, unlikely heroes, must do better: How Irish players have performed in qualification for World Cup play-offs

Derry star has been outstanding performer for Martin O'Neill across the ten games in Group D that have set up World Cup play-off

James McClean was Ireland's star man in qualifying campaign, Robbie Brady (inset, top) could do more while Wes Hoolahan (inset, bottom) is one of our ball players
James McClean was Ireland's star man in qualifying campaign, Robbie Brady (inset, top) could do more while Wes Hoolahan (inset, bottom) is one of our ball players
James McClean has become Ireland’s talisman, scoring crucial goals throughout the campaign, including Monday’s winner against Wales Photo: Sportsfile

Top Man

James McClean  It's five years and a month since McClean sat on the team bus in Kazakhstan and fired off a controversial tweet criticising Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni.

That was around the point where his honeymoon period ended. Senior players were frustrated by his petulance.

He's travelled quite a journey in the meantime, sliding down the ladder before climbing right back up to really establish himself in the Premier League and become the leading light of an Irish dressing room.

McClean has scored three league goals since joining West Brom in June and yet has struck four for Ireland in this campaign and they all contributed to vital away victories.

If Ireland do make it to Russia, he deserves to be the poster boy

Best Supporting Act
Shane Duffy

O'Neill sought him out for special praise in the aftermath of Monday and the big man has grown in stature across the group. There was a ropey night in Moldova and a couple of instances where his eagerness got the better of him but the 25-year-old is not even at his peak yet and he's now a central figure for his country and a regular choice with a Premier Division club. He's working with two managers - O'Neill and Chris Hughton - that believe in him. There's definitely more improvement to come.

The Reliables
Darren Randolph, Ciaran Clark, Stephen Ward, Jon Walters

They are the regular 7/10 men or more depending on the occasion. Randolph is the only Irish player to have been involved in every game.

Question marks hung over his status coming into the summer date with Austria but O'Neill stuck with him and the faith was repaid at the crunch. Ward actually struggled in that Austria game but was otherwise solid across the group.

Clark has formed a solid partnership with Duffy when the centre-halves were originally chopped and changed.

And then there's Walters who popped up with a huge goal against the Austrians and soldiered through September's matches when appearing to be half-fit.

Unfortunately, he will be absent for the play-offs.

The Unlikely Heroes
Daryl Murphy, David Meyler, Cyrus Christie

A trio that wouldn't have taken top billing in any pre-campaign previews. Murphy kicked off the campaign with a first Irish goal in Serbia and finished it off with a key role in the October double-header.

At 34, he's living out an Indian summer and has penned a three-year deal at Nottingham Forest. Meyler's emergence in the run-in is quite a story given he was an emergency stopgap to that point.

Christie has manfully deputised for Seamus Coleman and, while he was caught out at certain points in September, he was also disciplined in the second half against the Welsh.

The Ball Players
Wes Hoolahan, Harry Arter, Aiden McGeady, Eunan O'Kane

Hoolahan and Arter were both involved in five games each, with a combination of injury and a dropping in and out of favour contributing to their 50pc appearance record.

In Vienna, Hoolahan executed a perfect through ball for McClean that was one of the moments of the group and his creativity should be required at some point in the play-offs.

Arter can play but he's more of an all-action bustling presence; that attribute was missing in Georgia and he paid the penalty but the Bournemouth player redeemed himself in Cardiff.

There's a sense that he's still getting used to the approach of this Irish side; and if he plays then it's possible Hoolahan may not.

All of McGeady's appearances came off the bench and his impact was middling. O'Kane only made a late cameo in Moldova and is very much down the pecking order but O'Neill likes him.

Can Do Better
Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick, Shane Long

Three Irish players have made seven outings in ten games and they have all left room for improvement heading into the play-offs.

Brady and Hendrick have struggled with the responsibility of becoming senior players since Euro 2016 but they both came to the fore in Cardiff and the Burnley pair can look to that for November inspiration.

Hendrick, in particular, needed the big moment like his role in McClean's winner.

Meanwhile, Shane Long's only goal in the group came at home to Moldova and he's bereft of confidence at the moment. He's still a pest to defenders, though, and was missed in Wales.

Ones to Watch
Callum O'Dowda, Conor Hourihane, Kevin Long, Sean Maguire

When the qualifying draw was made in the summer of 2015, Callum O'Dowda was a low-profile Irish U-21 international at Oxford, Kevin Long was on the long-term injury recovery trail at Burnley, Conor Hourihane was trying to build a name for himself with Barnsley and Sean Maguire was struggling to get a look-in with Dundalk after coming home from England.

All four have made giant strides in their own careers since then and got on the pitch during this campaign. O'Dowda and Long both started matches and are well regarded by management whereas Hourihane and Maguire still have work to do.

Down In Status
Glenn Whelan, John O'Shea, Richard Keogh

Whelan still figured in eight matches and was called upon for a big 15 in Cardiff, yet it's possible time may show that Georgia away was the point in his Irish career where O'Neill realised a more energetic presence was required as his defensive shield.

That said, Meyler's suspension for the first leg next month might let him back in. O'Shea and Keogh paired up for the nil-all with Wales when Clark and Duffy were out. However, Kevin Long was parachuted into the squad ahead of them and they now require injury problems to get a look-in.

The Sicknotes
James McCarthy, David McGoldrick, Stephen Quinn

McCarthy only lined out in two games but it feels like he was discussed before every single international with rows between O'Neill and Ronald Koeman a recurring theme of the qualification cycle. If he could somehow build match fitness over the next month then he would be a viable alternative to Meyler. McGoldrick has endured a dreadful run of bad luck around the qualifiers while Quinn has barely been sighted since he made a big impact in Belgrade along with Murphy.

The Injured Captain

Seamus Coleman was well on his way to rivalling McClean for the player of the campaign gong when he was struck down by Neil Taylor. He has tried to fulfil captain duties by coming into report for duty and provide encouraging words around the hotel. But it's a continued source of frustration for O'Neill - and of course the player - that Ireland are involved in high-stakes games and their best player is tracksuited on the bench next to the coaching staff.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport