Comment - Larnaca test gives Sean Maguire chance for Irish audition
Europa League farewell will offer hint about what future holds for Preston-bound attacker
As one journey ends for Sean Maguire, another can begin. It could take him all the way to Russia next summer.
That may sound like fanciful talk, but Ireland are so short in the striking department that any forward in form can realistically think about playing themselves into the picture.
Maguire's imminent move from Cork City to Preston brings him to a level where he will be considered as a serious option by Martin O'Neill.
But he can make inroads before August by making a meaningful contribution to the Leesiders' European tie with Cypriot side AEK Larnaca that will function as his farewell to the club that has revived his career.
Maguire and Kevin O'Connor say goodbye to the Turner's Cross crowd after tonight's first leg encounter with Sunday's trip to Bray and next Thursday's decider in the sun bringing down the curtain on their City careers.
With all due respect to O'Connor, a talented left full-back that will be confident of making his own mark, much of the adulation will be directed towards the diminutive front man who has become the poster boy for John Caulfield's side.
They are well on the way to a league title because of the 19 goals that he has scored in their 20 games to date to open up a commanding advantage over Dundalk. Larnaca are on Leeside this evening because Maguire dug Cork out of a hole seven days ago to down Levadia Tallinn with a second-half hat-trick that displayed his full range of talents.
His first goal was a skilful back-flick from a brilliantly-timed run to the near post; the second was a confident finish when a change of pace left a defender for dead; the third was a leap that defied his size to divert a corner.
He is, by some distance, Cork's favourite Kilkenny man. And his adoring fans expect Maguire to graduate to a green jersey within a short space of time.
The player himself is aware of a debate over where he stands in the all-time ranking of City performers. Quite a few fans are putting the 23-year-old at the top of the list.
When you consider that the recent competition includes future internationals Kevin Doyle and Shane Long (although he really only had a very brief spell at the club) and the likes of John O'Flynn, Dave Mooney and Roy O'Donovan, all of whom were exceptional on their day, then the bar has been set high for Maguire.
He relishes the attention and is not shy about his own ambitions; he has stated that he fully expects to break into the international picture and is disappointed that it didn't happen during his stay at Cork.
Unfortunately, a player scoring regularly at League of Ireland level will always be judged sceptically by international managers because of perceptions about the quality of the opposition.
And the uneven playing standards in the domestic league hammer home that point. A hat-trick against Dundalk might carry some weight, but running riot against some of the poorer part-time sides at the wrong end of the table is no preparation for what that player might encounter in the international sphere.
Europe is a different story. Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle played themselves into Martin O'Neill's thoughts by starring in Dundalk's Europa League adventure, even though they were Preston players by the time they actually got on the pitch.
Regular observers of Horgan believed he was good enough to operate on a higher plain, but his goalscoring display away to Zenit St Petersburg confirmed it. On paper, they were a superior operation to the vast majority of sides that Ireland encounter.
AEK Larnaca are bereft of recognisable stars. Javier Garrido, formerly of Manchester City, is the figure that stands out from their roster but he has missed the trip to Cork due to injury.
However, Larnaca's Spanish manager Imanol Idiakez has a dozen players from his homeland in his panel offering stacks of La Liga experience. Midfielder Ivan Trickovski scored for his native Macedonia at the Aviva Stadium in a Euro 2012 qualifier. Vladimir Boljevic plays for Montenegro.
On top of that, they have a host of Cypriot internationals in their ranks, including first-choice 'keeper Antonis Georgallides and national captain Constantinos Charalambides who scored twice in the infamous drubbing of Steve Staunton's Ireland back in 2006.
Larnaca have an ageing side, but it is packed with grizzled veterans that have been around the block at a very good level. If Maguire can succeed in terrorising them, then he would not be out of his depth against Georgia or Moldova for starters.
Of course, it isn't always that straightforward. When football people speak of the jump to international level, they're not necessarily referring to the ability of the opposition.
It is about coping with the intense scrutiny and pressure that can surround stand-alone games, a contrast from the club sphere where the games stack up quickly and bad performances are forgotten.
With Ireland, every detail is magnified and some players struggle with the expectation; they have to knit into an existing system too.
Roy Keane was a top-level player from the moment he stepped onto the pitch with Nottingham Forest, yet he acknowledges himself that it took 25 games before he really felt comfortable with Ireland.
In normal circumstances, a player with Maguire's profile would not even be in the discussion until he was scoring regularly in the Championship.
But these are not normal circumstances. Jon Walters, who advertised his continued importance against Austria last month, is 33. Long is 30. Daryl Murphy is 34 and will be on loan in the Championship in the forthcoming English season.
Ipswich's injury-prone David McGoldrick (29) , MLS-based Doyle (33) and uncapped Aberdeen attacker Adam Rooney (29) are the other forwards that have been named in squads during this World Cup campaign.
O'Neill has been reluctant to trust Rooney - which perhaps offers an insight into how he views strikers notching good numbers in small leagues - but the Dubliner should also be watched as Aberdeen's European campaign kicks off tonight.
Maguire's age profile gives him a fantastic chance to become the future if he hits the ground running at Preston and he can look to draw inspiration from Doyle who left midway through 2005 and went straight into Reading's side.
There is substance to the argument that he should have been given the chance to meet O'Neill's squad in the summer window, especially when they diverted to Fota for a couple of days.
But it's clear that O'Neill felt he had more to do. One shouldn't rewrite history here. Question marks have been raised about Maguire in the past. West Ham didn't work out for him and that plants a natural suspicion.
Several clubs came to watch him in last November's FAI Cup final and went away unconvinced, despite his dramatic extra-time winner.
He was a menace in the early stages of Cork's European run 12 months ago but all of his goals came from the spot and he did miss chances in an otherwise excellent performances away to Genk before speculation over his future hung over the return where he was withdrawn at Turner's Cross with half an hour remaining. It is unthinkable that Caulfield would withdraw Maguire from any game now, a reflection of how much he has improved in quite a short window.
He has been stronger, faster and sharper in 2017 and can play with his back to goal as well as pickpocketing chances around the area. Ireland lack players with his basic attributes, much as his challenge now is to prove that they can be as effective on a grander stage.
This will be an emotional night for Maguire as the curtain comes down on a wonderful chapter in his career. But it should also represent an important audition for what comes next.