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Passion play: Nothing will stop St Ledger going to Macedonia

SEAN ST LEDGER really shouldn't be flying to Macedonia today. He has ample reason to be resting up at home, or on holiday. Everyone would have understood.

The Preston defender picked up a knee injury 10 weeks ago that was diagnosed at the time as being serious enough to justify a 12-week lay-off. His manager, Phil Brown, told Giovanni Trapattoni that he wouldn't be ready. The medics at Preston said it was a risk. St Ledger said he'd come over to Dublin anyway and give it a bash.

So he arrived last week when others didn't. He turned up for training and struggled, and Trapattoni promptly ruled him out. No chance. His Preston team-mate Keith Treacy seemed to confirm it.

"His knee is knackered, isn't it?" said Treacy last Thursday, before quipping, "at least he came over and showed his face."

Others had failed to do the same. Some were too tired to face it, others relied on their club to send unconvincing emails. St Ledger had his pass to leave.

But he came back for more. For that, the 26-year-old Birmingham-born centre-half -- once saddled with a 'bad boy' image -- will never have his commitment doubted by Trapattoni.

After wandering gingerly around Malahide last week, he was on the training ground at Gannon Park yesterday crunching into tackles. This was, after all, where his injuries started -- an accidental clash with Ciaran Clark back in March which ended his club season early. It was a campaign to forget anyway -- it ended with relegation from the Championship for Preston.

He will move on this summer and acknowledges that international football could put him in the shop window. Yet by the same token he risks aggravating an injury that could scare potential employers away. So, there's nothing cynical about his presence. Why go through the hassle? A simple answer.

"Because it's an honour to play for your country," he stressed. "I haven't played for 10 weeks and I love playing football, whether it's playing in the park, or for Ireland, or watching games on TV.

"I was disappointed not to play in the Carling Nations Cup but I wasn't ready to play until now. I see this as a chance to play in games. It's what I do."

Was he surprised that others had stayed away?

"I suppose so, I think it's up to each individual and how they feel," he responded diplomatically, before tellingly adding, "I am completely the opposite and I will play for as long as I can.

"I have been playing professionally for eight years and I am here now and anxious to play. I love football and there are only a few years left.

"Whenever I finish, I'm sure that I'll look back on it with pride. As a child, every kid wants to play football, and some are fortunate to be able to do it for a living."

It's less than five years since an Irish passport was rushed through for St Ledger before a Euro 2008 qualifier in Stuttgart.

Yet he disappeared just as quickly into the international wilderness until two years ago, when he was fast-tracked into Giovanni Trapattoni's plans for a crucial World Cup qualifier in Bulgaria.

From there, his Irish stock went from strength to strength. He was the youngest member of the starting team on that infamous night in Paris, and had agreed a £4.5m move from Preston to Middlesbrough.

That fell through and, by his own admission, the last 12 months have been riddled with inconsistency at club level.

Preston have been in crisis, and are League One bound. International football is a welcome distraction. Conscious that Darren O'Dea made a positive impression in the March win over Macedonia, St Ledger is keen to ensure that he retains his place in Trapattoni's thoughts.

It increased his urgency with respect to making this afternoon's flight.

"I went and saw a specialist in Wigan, and he said the injury would be 12 weeks," he explained. "And it's now 10 and a little bit, so the manager (Brown) has rung the boss here and said, 'he is not going to be fit' because he was told that it was going to be 12 weeks.

"But I felt that I was going to be fine and rang up to say I would. We've gone from there, really. I tore two medial ligaments, even though I didn't think it was serious at the time. A few of the fibres got torn away from the bone; that's why it was taking so long to heal.

"Preston weren't going to let me come over in the first place. So I just had to say I thought I would be okay and then I had a scan.

"I wasn't ready for last week but I've trained for two days this week, which is more than I thought I would do earlier on. I'm fresh and ready to get back into it."

His presence has caused a dilemma for Trapattoni.

O'Dea is hardly coming into this game on the crest of a wave either -- Sunday's single-goal victory over Scotland was his first outing in a month due to an ankle problem, and it took the 24-year-old a while to warm into proceedings.

The Celtic man lasted for 65 minutes and the Irish management need to measure up if that is enough to give him an advantage over St Ledger, who is an automatic selection when fit.

Partnering St Ledger and O'Dea together would be madness, given their injury problems so, with Richard Dunne suspended, John O'Shea will revert from his usual right-back slot to bring an experienced presence to the heart of the back four.

Selecting O'Shea's partner is Trapattoni's challenge and St Ledger said he would accept the verdict if he missed out.

"I can understand whatever decision the manager takes," he said. "There is always a risk. Like, Kevin Doyle played (for Wolves) and came back (against Sunderland) and said he was fine and tweaked his injury a bit.

"The bigger picture is to qualify for the Euros, and if that means me not playing, but Ireland qualifying, then I would definitely go for it."

Whatever happens on Saturday, his efforts will be appreciated.

Irish Independent