O’Neill unlikely to turn to Scott Hogan to solve scoring crux
Manager would be reluctant to throw Aston Villa striker in against Moldova or Wales
A dejected Robbie Brady and Shane Long following the defeat to Serbia at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
But even after a night on which the team’s ineffectiveness in front of goal proved so costly, Martin O’Neill suggests he would be reluctant to throw the 25-year-old in at a deep end.
Hogan effectively ended the speculation about his international future a month or so back when he confirmed to O’Neill that he would declare for Ireland but the Aston Villa striker did not obtain his passport in time to feature in the squad for the recent games.
The manager expects that the process will be complete by the start of next month but admits that the player’s lack of international experience would make his involvement in the games themselves a gamble that he would have to weigh up carefully.
“While you like some people like himself and young (Sean) Maguire to come into the squad and maybe have a little look round for a while, it’s asking a lot to go in,” he says.
“But we’ll see; you never know what the month might bring in terms of players playing a wee bit of extra football at club level, even in the Championship, and maybe just being ready for it.”
The Dubliner scored 51 goals in 81 World Cup and European Championship qualifiers for Ireland and while his record was sometimes picked apart by sceptics who pointed to the proportion that came against lesser opposition, the lack of anyone even remotely as effective around the area as the former Leeds, Liverpool and Tottenham star, has been highlighted again this year with O’Neill’ side managing just two goals in four group games, a key reason they have added just three points in 2017 to the 10 they had amassed in the opening four last autumn.
Inevitably, the hope was that Shane Long would take on much of the burden but, hampered perhaps by his inability to nail down a regular first team place at Southampton, it has not really worked out that way.
Now 30 years-old, the Serbia game was Long’s 75th international appearance with the striker amassing 17 goals for his country over that time.
Back in 2007, the year of his first cap, he scored three in seven games but it took until 2015 before he managed than many in a calendar year again. To be fair, though, the goals then were all in competitive games – a very late equaliser at home to Poland, one of Ireland’s four away to Gibraltar and the celebrated winner in the 1-0 defeat of Germany.
That run more or less coincided with his most prolific Premier League campaign – 10 goals in 28 appearances for Southampton – but he has found himself back on the bench most of the time for his club since.
Last year, he started 11 of Ireland’s 13 games and came on in one of the others, racking up a total of 856 minutes on the pitch. Again, there were three goals although this time, two were in friendlies with the third, scored against Moldova, his only goal to date in the current campaign.
In some of the games, it would be extremely hard to blame him with, for instance, the lack of service he was afforded in Tbilisi, where he spent his evening chasing down long balls, putting pressure on opponents and winning free-kicks offering few opportunities to get himself on the scoresheet.
Against Serbia, though, the shortcomings in Ireland’s attack were fairly cruelly exposed and Long’s couple of half decent attempts from distance did not really contribute hugely to what became an increasingly desperate search for a goal.
Late on, it was substitute Daryl Murphy who featured more prominently at key moments with the Nottingham Forest striker the one brought down for the sending off and fouled for what should have been a penalty.
Murphy has not exactly proved to be a goal machine for Ireland either but, like Long, he might easily point to the much wider job spec that usually comes with his place in the team.
Whether Hogan can do much better, or even close to as well, at this level remains to be seen and it would surely be a help if he started scoring a few goals for Villa in the Championship. Either way, given O’Neill’s comments, it is hard to see him coming in and being handed the task of making a critical difference at the first time of asking.
Of more immediate concern so, will be the absence of this campaign’s current top scorer, James McClean, for the game against Moldova, although the manager acknowledged the consolation that the midfielder will be missing that rather than the Wales game that follows three days later.
“It’s a real shame the players [Robbie Brady will be missing next time too] picking up the bookings in the match and, while it’s right to say that they will be available for Wales, we’ve got a big, big game against Moldova without two of our key players. And that is a blow.”