Sunday 17 December 2017

Is this how Martin O'Neill's Ireland will line up in next World Cup campaign?

John Fallon

Trust Roy Keane to provide a dose of reality.

With the evenings stretching out, sun shining upon May Day's arrival and neighbours England and Scotland due in Dublin next month, Irish football fans had reason to put a challenging start to the Euro 2016 qualification behind them.

Martin O’Neill may operate in the here and now – with Scotland his sole focus – but his assistant has a broader view of the world. Perhaps it’s his superior understanding of the Ireland psyche and younger age which blesses him that perspective.

Alternatively, Keane could just be visualising the mechanics he inherits from O’Neill if the Derryman rides off into the Premier League sunset at the end of an unsuccessful campaign.

Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane
Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane

Keane, either way, has an opinion of what’s coming down the tracks, however unpalatable that may be to his employers and the football public as a whole.

“It’s hard work because we’re short of players,” the 43-year-old lamented at an event to promote today’s Irish Guide Dog Day. “We’ve a small pool of players.

“Our last game against Poland, Robbie (Keane) was up front and Robbie's 34. John O'Shea at centre-half, he's 34. Shay (Given) was in goal and I think he's about 64.”

So that pool is to shrink further.

Robbie Keane has flagged this to be his last campaign, while fellow centurions O’Shea and Given will be deserving of international closure when the qualifiers conclude in Warsaw this October.

Considering that Wes Hoolahan and Jon Walters will both be 33 and Glen Whelan 32 when the tilt at reaching the 2018 World Cup kicks off in September 2016, it’s probable six of the starting team against Poland five weeks ago won’t be around. Ireland’s leading cross-channel scorer, Daryl Murphy, will also be in his 34th year by then.

That quest to qualify for the Russian-hosted showpiece makes for painful viewing.

Barring victories over both Scotland and England next month, O’Neill will travel to Saint Petersburg for the draw on July 25 with Ireland likely to be fourth seeds. Only the top team in each group is guaranteed to progress.

Keane’s assertion that “we’ve a tough few years ahead of us” represents the inconvenient truth.

His fellow former Ireland captain Liam Brady has long held the opinion that succession planning won’t be kind to the Ireland team.

As much as mainstays Damien Duff and Richard Dunne have been missed since retiring, then just how weakened will be the side from the decision of Keane, O’Shea, Given and Hoolahan – and probably more – to hang up their international boots.

No doubt the upcoming Technical Development Plan will be trumpeted by the FAI as the cure to our ills but bear in mind Ruud Dokter, the association’s High Performance Director, concedes 15 years could elapse before the fruits of the blueprint filter into the senior squad.

And, by his own admission, success depends on proper investment to fund the programmes.

Before then, looking ahead to next year’s World Cup qualifiers, considers the best possible team the manager, be it O’Neill or even Keane, could select for the opening tie in 17 months.

GOALKEEPER: Keiren Westwood.

Some set-backs for club and country in the past 18 months haven’t detracted from Westwood’s ability to become a successor to Given. Expect Charlton’s Stephen Henderson, rather than David Forde or Rob Elliot, to be Westwood’s prime rival.

RIGHT-BACK: Seamus Coleman.

His ascent shows no sign of abating, despite some dodgy moments during the season. Could easily be playing for a UEFA Champions League club by then.

Robbie Brady has defied sceptical medical bulletins from Hull to report for Ireland duty

LEFT-BACK: Robbie Brady.

The Baldoyle native is part of Ireland’s future, whether in defence or attack. With O’Neill set to offer him more experience at left-back, the berth is his to lose.

CENTRE-BACK: Marc Wilson.

Now an established regular in the centre, Wilson’s would be the senior member of the defensive line.

CENTRE-BACK: Ciaran Clark.

His trajectory since defecting from England has stalled, yet the raw material to become a top player is there. It’s up to Clark if he realises that potential.

MIDFIELD: Jeff Hendrick.

Showed his readiness for the big stage against Germany and Italy but some weakness in Glasgow. Will be a Premier League player, with or without Derby, in 2016.

James McCarthy

MIDFIELD: James McCarthy.

Irish fans are due a consistent spell from McCarthy and the reliance upon the Glaswegian will be more acute than ever. Possesses the traits to be world-class.

MIDFIELD: Harry Arter.

The cheeky chappy’s revival is good news for Ireland. No spring chicken but has enough ability and drive for the team to profit from his presence.

RIGHT-WING: James McClean.

One of the only players to emerge from Wigan’s wretched campaign with his reputation intact, McClean won’t be joining them in the third tier. His tenacity is welcome in any Ireland team.

Shane Long, Republic of Ireland, celebrates after scoring his side's equalsing goal with team-mate Wesley Hoolahan


Having lived in Robbie Keane’s shadow since coming into the squad in 2007, Long could thrive in the aftermath of the legend’s retirement. Needs to build on a strong debut season at Southampton.

LEFT-WING: Jack Grealish.

It’s a close contest between the return of Love Hate or Grealish to the Irish public as the biggest question for 2016. Roy Keane’s continuation in the Irish set-up promises to be a crucial factor in the teen agonising over his long-term international future.

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