Monday 23 September 2019

U-21 talents can add wildcard to Irish formula

Youths could offer settled Ireland side an ambitious Plan B

Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

A year has passed since the haphazard defeat in Cardiff that kicked off the final stretch of the Martin O'Neill era.

Roy Keane's 'Off The Ball' appearance has brought that period back into the memory again, with the Irish assistant imploring Jon Walters and Stephen Ward to remember how they fared in that 4-1 drubbing.

Everyone was bad, which said a lot about the environment at the time.

This was an exercise that spawned the experiment with Cyrus Christie as a midfielder, the point where it became clear that the old regime was fumbling around a room searching for a light switch.

Ireland have made progress in the intervening period, even if it was hard to come away from Thursday's draw with Switzerland feeling overly enthused about the prospects of Euro 2020 qualification.

In truth, the Swiss superiority for large periods of the game was troubling. This was a keynote game of the campaign, a home match in Dublin which represented the perfect opportunity to make a statement. But there was a gulf between the teams that was masked by a spirited late rally that yielded a point.

This was closer to an underdog salvaging a result from a cup match with an opponent from a higher division than a clash of two equals.

Ireland's performance against Denmark in June was arguably more encouraging because it was an organised away-day display.

Faced with the challenge of having to ask probing questions on their own patch, Mick McCarthy's team found it harder to be solid. Switzerland will be relishing the rematch.

Yet it's hard to pick faults with management. McCarthy has succeeded in putting together a relatively settled side in a short timeframe, although he did try and mix up the formation with that personnel on a couple of occasions on Thursday.

The midfield trio of Glenn Whelan, Jeff Hendrick and Conor Hourihane came in with concerns about their fitness, but there was no outstanding alternative available. His back four have built up an understanding.

Maybe the discourse would have been different if Matt Doherty was available or Callum O'Dowda had more games under his belt or if Sean Maguire was on the bench, but the Aviva Stadium crowd weren't calling for particular players to be introduced on Thursday.

There was no cause celebre on the outside looking in. Wes Hoolahan is in Australia now. McCarthy views Alan Judge as his go-to solution and he's done fine in that role without banging the door down.

Outrage

In other words, in terms of the senior options available, McCarthy is utilising his resources well. Any outrage over selection would be contrived. Perhaps he can use Tuesday's friendly with Bulgaria to give Alan Browne and O'Dowda an extended run.

David McGoldrick and Callum Robinson's absence will open the door for Scott Hogan, James Collins or possibly even Ronan Curtis. Jack Byrne should be in the matchday squad and could be afforded some minutes to accelerate the revival of his career.

There is nothing revolutionary about what's happening, which is why there is so much focus on the development of the Irish U-21 team ahead of last night's 1-0 win against Armenia.

And their display in front of McCarthy provided food for thought.

Switzerland were quicker and more dynamic than Ireland, with Breel Embolo's devastating pace drawing some gasps. Ireland had to rely on grit to get their rewards.

McCarthy is highly unlikely to pitch any rookies into a pressure-cooker qualifier, but there is a convincing argument for keeping a couple in reserve as a radical Plan B.

The process of fast-tracking players from a youth team into a senior set-up should ultimately be about improving areas where there are deficiencies.

McCarthy does have experienced options in reserve in the areas that will need to be solid on the road. John Egan is a good back-up to Richard Keogh or Shane Duffy.

With Enda Stevens suspended for Tbilisi, there is scope to try Doherty at left-full or call in Greg Cunningham. If James McCarthy and Robbie Brady can push themselves into the picture at club level, then they will enter the fray.

But what Ireland lack is a game-changing spark, a change of pace to keep opponents in check as they commit bodies.

Troy Parrott is the name on everyone's lips, the teenager from inner city Dublin deemed good enough to be Harry Kane's understudy.

He got the only goal last night and displayed his obvious quality, but he was actually overshadowed by Brighton's Aaron Connolly and his Damien Duff impression.

Connolly (19) is an attacking winger who has already been deemed good enough to participate at Premier League level this season. He was excellent last night, possessing dribbling ability that is a throwback.

The absent Michael Obafemi is an alternative, with the Southampton speedster already having gained top-flight playing and scoring experience.

In a 23-man matchday squad, that duo would genuinely offer something different to a side often described as predictable.

A wildcard option might help this reliable motor to find another gear.

Irish Independent

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