Tuesday 20 March 2018

Turkey trip is Martin O'Neill's opportunity to demonstrate he has a clear vision for Ireland's future

Ireland's Declan Rice celebrates with his team-mates. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland's Declan Rice celebrates with his team-mates. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Twenty years ago this month, Irish football was coming to terms with missing out on the forthcoming World Cup via a play-off.

A boost in morale was required and Mick McCarthy brought his side to the city of Olomouc for a low-profile friendly with the Czech Republic.

He arrived with a squad that made a statement about the direction of his tenure.

Senior players were rested, whether they liked it or not. Steve Staunton, Denis Irwin and Niall Quinn were amongst a contingent to be left behind even though they still had a part to play in the next Euros campaign.

Ireland lost 2-1 but Olomouc is remembered for being the launch pad for six international careers.

Mark Kinsella, Alan Maybury and teenager Damien Duff made their first senior appearances as starters. Robbie Keane, Rory Delap and Graham Kavanagh earned their maiden caps as substitutes. The average age of the side was 22, and the trip left a legacy for that reason.

This has to set the template for how Martin O'Neill approaches Ireland's jaunt to Turkey at the end of the month. Antalya can be remembered for the same reasons as Olomouc.

O'Neill names his squad today and it would be surprising and disappointing if the list was dominated by the tried and trusted. The Derryman has already hinted that he will go down the route of promoting younger players for this game.

He said as much during the January confusion surrounding his future intentions with his flirtation with Stoke raising questions about his enthusiasm for the rebuilding job.

It is a difficult task. The comparison with two decades ago can be chipped away at seeing that McCarthy was able to call on Keane and Duff, a pair of outstanding players that were once-in-a-generation talents in their respective positions.

Ireland were about to be crowned European champions at U-16 and U-18 level and the production line was healthy.

O'Neill is not working with comparable certainty about what's coming down the tracks, which might make it harder to discard senior citizens.

The only teenager he can call upon with high-level experience is Declan Rice - and part of the reason for calling the West Ham player up is to keep England at arm's length.

Fielding a side with an average age of 22 will be beyond him. But there is still an opportunity to set out with a team that has a freshness about it. That really is essential.

The Danish defeat was sobering and, while O'Neill is upset that one result is used to define a whole campaign, there was an end-of-an-era feel about how his team was dismantled.

If management are to stay, then players have to change. Daryl Murphy and Wes Hoolahan have already simplified his task by stepping away. John O'Shea and Glenn Whelan are set to do the same, while Jon Walters is injured at the moment which might delay clarity on his intentions. Walters might still have a role to play.

But there is no reason for O'Neill to bring any outfield player to Turkey that is 30 or over.

Stephen Ward is doing well for Burnley and a rare Premier League regular so he will be a part of the Euro 2020 campaign, but it would make more sense to give the 32-year-old a week off.

That would facilitate an opportunity for Greg Cunningham at left-back, or maybe even Matt Doherty given that the Wolves man has experience in that position.

Everton will be want control over Seamus Coleman's movements seeing as he's just returning from ten months out.

He is desperate to get back wearing green and O'Neill will want his captain's presence around the camp but, in this instance, you could understand if his employer were worried about unnecessary journeys.

The only established pros that would really benefit from involvement are a frustrated James McClean who could probably do with a break from West Brom and Burnley's Jeff Hendrick who hasn't played well for Ireland in a while. Management really need to figure out where best to use him.

After all, this isn't just a game. It's a week away for training, a slightly unusual departure.

Preparation for games was scrutinised in the tail end of the World Cup campaign and the absence of a really coherent Plan B was exposed by the Danish nightmare.

O'Neill has spoken of trying three at the back and altering formation, but has never really committed to it. He did experiment against Mexico in the United States a year ago, yet that team was thrown together.

Conor Hourihane ended up in a central midfield next to Daryl Horgan, an arrangement that didn't suit either party and was never going to be put in practice in the future so it was essentially pointless. Hourihane should figure in Antalya, and Preston's Alan Browne is another midfield option.

Seán Maguire is a cert for a striking brief along with Scott Hogan. If O'Neill has spent the last three months eyeing talent, then it would also be refreshing if he made a judgement call on players that might be good enough inside 12 months.

Josh Cullen (West Ham) and Connor Ronan (Wolves) are names to put out there, but there could be less exposed alternatives.

O'Neill saw something he liked in Callum O'Dowda before he got his move to the Championship so he should have his own ideas.

It has to be about more than change for the sake of change. In the past, he has spoken of an aversion to throwing caps around like confetti. But there is a window now to embark on a project.

If there is to be light at the end of the tunnel, Ireland need a manager with a clear vision.

Irish Independent

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