Martin O’Neill needs new talent to take team to Russia
The Ireland squad will look very different when it’s World Cup qualifying time
Republic of Ireland Manager Martin O'Neill
For all the encouragement that Martin O’Neill says he has taken from the Irish team’s performances here in France, the northerner faces major challenges as he prepares to head into a World Cup qualifying campaign in which the competition might not be quite so strong, but where a third-place finish will this time mean that everybody gets to stay at home and watch the action on television in two years’ time.
Two of the team’s best-ever players, Shay Given and Robbie Keane, are set to depart, with others such as John O’Shea, Daryl Murphy, Wes Hoolahan and possibly Glenn Whelan unlikely to be so central if Ireland do make it to Russia and they are still around.
Whelan’s contribution has been immense since Giovanni Trapattoni handed him a key role at the very outset of his reign, but while previous talk of his demise has turned out to be greatly exaggerated, the general improvement witnessed when he was omitted against Italy and James McCarthy started in midfield alongside Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick suggested that this was the way forward for the team. If Ireland are to pursue the high-energy approach seen in the last two games here, then he does look to be one of the likely losers.
Shane Duffy received a hard lesson in what happens when you make mistakes at this level on Sunday, but still emerges from the competition looking like he has a very big role to play. His defensive play clearly needs to improve, but even as things stand the threat he poses at Irish set-pieces is likely to be required in a side that looks increasingly thin up top.
Quite who Ireland look to after his departure is another thing. The names being thrown at Martin O’Neill were Scott Hogan (a 24-year-old Brentford striker who got seven in seven for his club this season but has played only 10 games in two years due to injuries), Joe Mason of Wolves, who got three in 16 for the Championship side over the campaign just gone, and Callum O’Dowda, a promising 21-year-old, whose eight in 38 for Oxford would look healthier if it weren’t for the fact that they were all scored against League Two defenders.
In the circumstances, another couple of midfielders with a knack for creating or scoring a goal – like Jack Grealish, when he was playing well, or Mark Noble for instance – would have been a huge help, while O’Neill can only wonder what might be possible if a Harry Kane had declared for Ireland.
Standout prospectsAlan JudgeHarry ArterJack ByrneIan Lawlor
Where Trapattoni preferred to make players fit the system, O’Neill, at least, has shown a real willingness over his first campaign to adapt his approach so as to accommodate the various talents available to him. That has been the key to Ireland’s success, such as it was, at this tournament.
It will not be or celebrated like the team’s first finals appearance in 1988 or its greatest one two years later, but the team has exceeded modest expectations thanks to clever management, flexible tactics and, in the timing and circumstance of the Italy game, a little luck too, perhaps.
With Robbie Brady, Hoolahan and Jeff Hendrick all having had really good tournaments, though, individual talent has played its part. How O’Neill must wish it was like his club days now and he could simply go out and buy some more.