Martin O’Neill calls on new faces to grasp their opportunity
Manager confirms Jon Walters keen to remain involved with squad going forward
Martin O’Neill talks to the press at the Regnum Sports Centre, Antalya, Turkey. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
The huge hotels that line the coast road from Antalya to the Irish team base at Belek give a sense of the sort of numbers who must come to this part of Turkey through the summer months. The scale of the water-parks and rides beside them make it clear that the emphasis is on play.
The Republic of Ireland’s training camp here is supposed to be a bit more serious than some of those surroundings might suggest but the presence of so many new faces combined with the lack of an imminent competitive game would appear to have had its effect on the atmosphere, with a little less intensity in the air than usual.
Manager Martin O’Neill talked about there being “a freshness,” to it all before making it abundantly clear that is also serious business to be attended to; this week and in June, with players getting opportunities to stake their claims to be replacements for the ones who have departed since the end of the World cup campaign.
Those opportunities, he suggested however, really have to be taken.
“I wouldn’t want to mistake ‘freshness’ for thinking that that there will be an immediate improvement to the side,” he said.
“These players have got to prove themselves. Some of the lads coming into the squad are not 18, 19 and 20 – they are in their mid-twenties, so it’s up to them to do something.
“I would not want to put undue pressure on them here for this particular game. But we have got this match, we have got the game against France in which you would want to put up a show and we have the USA game.”
Whether he could hope to be a part of a squad that might participate in the next European Championships (when he will be going on 37) might be another thing
A poor game on Friday might be forgivable, he seemed to be saying, but three strikes and the repeat offenders may well find themselves out.
The list of vacancies in his senior squad is, as it happens, marginally shorter than many thought with the manager revealing that having talked to Jonathan Walters he is happy to have the Burnley striker available for the next campaign. “I think Jon would like to continue depending on how things go in the next couple of months,” said the manager. “I think Jon will still want to play when he is 64! He is not one to retire.
“He was very, very positive a couple of months ago when I met him down in London while he came down to a check up on how is injury was going. He was pretty keen and hopefully that keenness will only improve as his injury improves.
“I think that he can still bring value to the squad because at this minute we have got Shane Long and we have got the two young lads trying to impress, which is great.
“If he wants to do it . . . I also think he would be a great influence as well; a bit like John O’Shea was [though the last campaign].”
Whether he could hope to be a part of a squad that might participate in the next European Championships (when he will be going on 37) might be another thing, O’Neill acknowledged, but the manager seems more than happy to have the former Stoke City striker give it his best shot.
His options, he knows, remain limited in quite a few departments but the generation of goals is a particular concern and so the decision by Reading midfielder Liam Kelly to turn down a place in the current squad in the hope of winning an England call-up comes as something of a blow.
The 66-year-old reiterated his clearly stated position that the decision in these situations is always the player’s although there was a touch of bemusement in the air as he recounted having left voice messages to enquire as to the player’s intentions replied to by way of a text message to the effect that the Basingstoke -born midfielder, who has six goals from 31 games so far this season, prefers to keep his options open just now.
O’Neill knows well that you win some and lose some on this score. A moment later he was speaking about Declan Rice, who was also born in England but who made it clear on Sunday evening that he is firmly committed to the Irish cause.
Five other members of the current squad, as it happens, are here in Turkey having previously represented another national side at some stage in their early careers.
Amongst the ones for whom this sort of this sort of stuff does not really arise, on the other hand, is Alan Judge, the Dublin-born Brentford midfielder who like, Seamus Coleman, trained with the squad yesterday for the first time since a double leg break had consigned him to a long spell on the sidelines.
In Judge’s case, that spell was extended more than once by setbacks and O’Neill said he was happy to have the 29-year-old back as well as happy for the player.
“I wanted him to come back because I think he was pretty close to having a spot in the Euros with us but for the injury,” he said. “He’s had a really, really tough time and I thought, ‘let’s bring him out here’. I think he’s appreciative of it. He’s been a sub there for the last five or six weeks at Brentford and I think this little break and working here for a few days will do him the world of good.”