Ireland's exciting prospects
Mick McCarthy yesterday outlined his vision of Republic of Ireland teams of the future by naming Robbie Keane to play alongside Damien Duff in this evening's `B' international game against Northern Ireland at Tolka Park.
In nominating two of the most exciting youngsters in English club football to share the responsibility of undoing the northern defence, he chose the relatively-unknown Barnet player Sean Devine to operate alongside them.
Unlike his fellow predators, Devine languishes in the relative anonymity of the third division and goes into the game without ever playing at international level. It is precisely because of this unpretentious background, however, that McCarthy rates him as a valued member of his squad.
"In his case, it can truly be said that he's `up' for the game. It's his chance to prove that he deserves to be playing at a higher level and come what may, he's ready to take it."
Undeniably, however, it is the presence of Duff and Keane which provides the magnetic quality in the side. Ever since he burst onto the international stage with a series of compelling performances in the World Under-20 Championship in Malaysia last summer, his has been a name linked with the best of the emerging talent in the FA Premiership.
At times, that pressure has appeared to weigh heavily on his young shoulders at Blackburn, but through it all, he has invariably managed to reveal glimpses of the skills which, with luck, will sustain him for many years in senior international football.
Keane, at 17, is two years younger than Duff and back at the start of the season, he said that a place in Brian Kerr's under-18 team, as the summit of his ambition. All that has now changed, however, in the wake of some exhilarating performances which have brought him nine goals for Wolves and a £4.5m transfer enquiry from Sheffield Wednesday.
Rarely have two youngsters provoked such obvious interest. Now the great challenge for each of them is to prove those judgements right against defenders who will be inspired by the pedigree of their opposition.
McCarthy is rightly concerned that almost all the attention is being focused on just two of his players. That, he contends, is unfair to the rest of the team and the point is not without some merit. According to McCarthy, there are places in the senior squad that could be won by a number of other players on the pitch this evening and among those with much to gain are the three midfielders, Mark Kinsella, Graham Kavanagh and the team captain Gareth Farrelly.
Kinsella, who plays down the right flank this evening, is one of those queuing for Ray Houghton's place and Farrelly is in with a shout for the difficult job of replacing Andy Townsend. In between them, Kavanagh, who is enjoying a fine season with Stoke City, will also be keen to press his claims in a holding role.
With Gary Breen and Steve Carr both out, McCarthy acknowledges that the back four on duty here would not normally be his first choice. Yet, there is certain to be a lot of attention on Alan Maybury at right back and the Everton youngster Richard Dunne, who partners Dave Worrell in central defence.
Philip Hardy, one of the forgotten young men of Irish football after captaining the under-21 team on a couple of occasions, will be keen to make a point at left back and the same is true of Nick Colgan, an accomplished goalkeeper, whose career with Chelsea hasn't gone quite as smoothly as expected.
Compared to this array of talent, Northern Ireland's resources look modest, but Roy Millar, their coach, was echoing the thoughts of many when he said that club status would not be an inhibiting factor for his players.
"Many of the Republic's players may enjoy a high club profile, but that's not going to make a lot of difference now," he said. "Our players realise that they can further their career ambitions in this game and that will make them competitive for the full 90 minutes."
The withdrawal of Aberdeen's John O'Neill has been exacerbated by the loss of such as Pat McGibbon (Wigan) and Manchester United's Philip Mulryne but, significantly, George O'Boyle will be available to bring his experience to bear on the front line.
O'Boyle has produced some fine performances for St Johnstone in recent seasons and no less than Darren Patterson (Luton), Gerard McMahon (Stoke), Keith Rowland (QPR) and the accomplished Newcastle youngster Aaron Hughes, he will make the home team work hard for anything they take out of the game.