Saturday 17 March 2018

Hogan's Ireland call can sharpen O'Neill's attack

Ireland boss Martin O’Neill speaking at the SSE Airtricity HQ in Leopardstown, Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland boss Martin O’Neill speaking at the SSE Airtricity HQ in Leopardstown, Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Martin O'Neill has spent his tenure as Ireland manager waiting for a promising striker to emerge.

And now two have come along at once.

"I wanted it to be about Sean Maguire today believe it or not," said O'Neill yesterday afternoon.

But in a discussion with newspaper journalists that followed his squad announcement at SSE Airtricity's headquarters in Leopardstown, the Ireland manager mentioned there was a positive update on Scott Hogan's intentions.

He was not on the 39-man list as the paperwork confirming his declaration for Ireland is still to be completed. But it was clear from O'Neill's tone that the Aston Villa attacker will be included in the next squad that he is eligible for. It means that Maguire will have competition in the race to fill the goal-poaching void left by Robbie Keane's international retirement.

For O'Neill it's a good problem to have, with all of his existing first-choice options on the wrong side of 30, even though he is loathe to draw lofty comparisons.

"Is there a Robbie Keane out there?" he said at one juncture. "He'd have to be pretty impressive to be another Robbie Keane."


Maguire and Hogan have a serious road to travel from their current status as Championship players trying to make an impression with new employers.

There have been calls for both to figure before now, albeit in drastically different circumstances.

O'Neill knows there is a parish of League of Ireland followers aggrieved that Maguire's call only came after he moved to Preston.

In response, he pointed out that he wasn't impressed with the Kilkenny man in last year's FAI Cup final but was really struck by his improvement when he watched him destroy Dundalk on June 2 - a night after the friendly with Mexico that was the last real window for experimentation.

It goes without saying that regular Championship football offers O'Neill a better idea of how Maguire might fare at international level - he did call up Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle last November while they were at Dundalk and the absence of a friendly in that window prevented them from being capped while in the League of Ireland.

Boyle is excluded from this squad after starting the season out of favour at Preston.

"If he had stayed on at Cork there's still a fairly decent chance on what I saw (v Dundalk) that I probably would have put him in the squad because we need a goalscorer, we need somebody who can find the net, and that's the point," insisted O'Neill.

"But I have to accept that it's still a big, big step up. The overall purpose for entry is for someone to be good enough to play here, and I don't think any of us around this table - and I'm supposed to be the expert - can tell if someone is good enough to be an international player because they've scored a couple of goals, and I don't just mean for Cork, I mean even at Preston."

O'Neill does have a better idea about Hogan's capabilities, though, having watched him regularly at Brentford when it seemed as though an Irish call was a formality. As his profile grew, however, it seemed that his representatives wanted to keep his English options open especially when a Premier League switch to West Ham was on the cards.

Aston Villa splashed out the cash to land him in a deal that could be worth £15m, but it's taken him a while to adjust.

O'Neill did not deny the player's head was turned but feels he is sincere about his Irish intentions - and wouldn't be bringing him in if he felt otherwise. He was taken by Hogan's certainty in his decision, in contrast to his club team-mate Jack Grealish.

"I would not start disagreeing (with the view Hogan was thinking of England) and again with young Grealish, he knew from a long way away that he did not have to worry about making a (final) decision. And whilst they have a lovely Irish connection and they felt that strong Irish bond, he was actually born in England.

"I understand that with players and I understand that if you were born somewhere, this is where you might want to play first.

"He would not have been the first player who would have thought about England first of all and actually ended up doing well for Ireland.

"Funnily enough, that did not come into the conversation, believe it or not, betwen myself and him. (Hogan's agent was also present). I thought that there was little point in bringing it up because he was the one who wanted to come to us.

"My immediate thought is that you are thinking 'are we picking up boys who are not good enough for England?'

"Well, it has happened before but I want the players to have a genuine enthusiasm for playing for the Republic of Ireland because I don't want to lose that. And Scott is very keen.

"I don't want players just stepping in and feeling 'well, I can get a couple of international caps and boost my club form'. That's not what we have here."

O'Neill will cut his squad down before they meet up in a fortnight so Maguire faces a nervous wait.

He'll watch Liam Kelly play for Reading tonight against Hogan's Villa to monitor his progress, feeling he has room to improve his midfield play. West Ham's Declan Rice was brought in to train with the seniors in May but will be a part of Noel King's U-21 squad this time around.

Darron Gibson is not included, though, with O'Neill of the view that his criticism of team-mates at Sunderland on a night out was "embarassing" for all concerned.

Irish Independent

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