Martin O’Neill seems to have settled on his favoured squad with a number of lesser known names forcing and securing their place in his plans. However, there are a number of players that could have made up the backbone of his team had they followed through on their initial potential.
Some may feel the Ireland squad could have been built around Stephen Ireland. Unfortunately Ireland chose not to pursue his international career following some well documented controversies; his story needs no elaboration. Others were hotly tipped to become key men for Ireland but for various reasons have rarely featured since the start of their involvement.
Some extremely talented players never quite made the impact at international level but still maintain good reputations at club level. Some came onto the scene over a decade ago but could not live up to expectation or nail down a place for their country.
Injury was to blame for the lack of opportunities some players were afforded but others had their chances limited due to falling-outs, regular squad pull outs and simply not living up to their potential. Some, meanwhile, may feel that they were not given a fair run of games.
However, all of the following players are still available to Ireland with most still part of the current squad. Some could still make an impact while others may be far down the pecking order given O’Neill’s preferences.
Keiren Westwood (20 caps in nine years)
Westwood came to the attention of the FAI following some eye-catching performances for Carlisle United and was considered one of the most talented keepers outside the Premier League. Although a move to Sunderland didn’t quite work out, he has shown his worth at Sheffield Wednesday where he picked up the third PFA of Team of the year selection of his career.
His reflexes are tremendous and he has arguably been the best keeper in the Championship for the past couple of seasons with an outstanding clean sheets record of 45 in 111 appearances.
However, his Ireland career never quite took off. After assuming the number one role following Shay Given’s initial retirement in 2012, Westwood conceded six goals against Germany in the famous home thrashing. This was Westwood’s big opportunity to prove his worth but David Forde overtook him in the pecking order.
After numerous injuries and pull outs during O’Neill’s tenure, Darren Randolph leapfrogged him and Forde and has been ever present since Ireland beat Germany 1-0 in Dublin. Westwood’s domestic form has never quite translated when given game time for Ireland but it could be argued that he was never given a consistent run.
Marc Wilson (25 caps and one goal in seven years)
Wilson was one of the controversial figures to switch allegiances to the Republic of Ireland having represented Northern Ireland at youth level. Having made a name for himself as a fullback with Portsmouth, he earned a move to Stoke, where he converted to a centre-back under Tony Pulis. He received his first call-up in 2010 but following a pull out of a Nations Cup tie Giovanni Trapattoni excluded him for a number of matches.
This should have been a time where Wilson was making the left-back slot his own as Stephen Ward was struggling at the time. Wilson finally got his shot in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, impressed and then was used as a ball playing centre-half at the start of O’Neill’s tenure.
Unfortunately, injuries stemmed the Antrim man’s international momentum after re-establishing himself and is now struggling for game time at West Brom where he is on loan from Bournemouth. At 29, Wilson should have a lot more than 25 caps given the fact he is a progressive modern day ball playing defender, which is a commodity in international football.
Darron Gibson (27 caps and one goal in ten years)
After starting off at Manchester United, Gibson looked destined for a long international career after making his debut as a 19-year-old just over a decade ago. Gibson was one of the last few Irish players to win a Premier League title or play in the Champions League and although he was not a standout player for United, was one of the most talented available to his country.
Gibson is another that fell out with Trapattoni following the Italian’s preference of fielding Paul Green at Euro 2012 over him despite the England-born midfielder’s consistently poor performances in the green jersey.
Gibson turned down call-ups as he refused to play while Trapattoni was still in charge but he finally returned under caretaker boss Noel King and took up a long tipped partnership with James McCarthy against Kazakhstan. Unfortunately after his long awaited come back he sustained a long-term knee injury. To make matters worse for Gibson, on his comeback he failed to get any consistent game time for Everton and did not secure a loan away from the club.
This had a terrible effect on his Ireland career as O’Neill was understandably reluctant to pick a player lacking so much game time. Ireland lack midfielders who are comfortable on the ball and Gibson could have added the calmness and composure required at international level. A decade on from his debut, few would have expected only 27 caps, but injuries, call-up refusal and lack of club action took its toll.
Anthony Stokes (nine caps and zero goals in ten years)
Stokes was one of the Irish wonderkids who looked the real deal at senior level. At 18, Stokes scored 14 goals in 16 appearances on loan at Falkirk from Arsenal, eventually making the move to Roy Keane’s Sunderland. A number of international call-ups followed although Stokes was more of a squad player given his inexperience. He looked a fearless and confident player but the goals did not flow in the Premier league, nor did his relationship with Keane.
After moving to the SPL, he showed proved his goalscoring and finishing ability, something that, apart from Robbie Keane’s input, was really lacking in the Ireland set-up. After impressive tallies in the SPL for Hibs and Celtic, it looked like Stokes would make his Ireland breakthrough. However, Trapattoni was again reluctant to pick him and was unimpressed with a casual chipped penalty he scored while on under-21 duty.
Like Wilson, Stokes pulled out of the 2011 Nations Cup and that was the last straw for Trapattoni. He made his comeback during King’s caretaker tenure, where he spent time as a winger with his last cap coming against Poland in a friendly in 2014.
Stokes has dropped off the radar in the past couple of years and despite being tipped as Ireland’s next great goalscorer after Robbie Keane, he has only managed nine caps without ever scoring. Still only 28, Stokes has time but it is hard to see him getting another crack at international football.
Anthony Pilkington (nine caps and one goal in four years)
Pilkington came from the lower leagues to become a crucial player for Norwich City. Some questioned Pilkington’s international allegiances following a number of impressive performances at club level with a fear England could call him up. Trapattoni eventually involved him in the later staged of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, however, where Pilkington impressed for a poor Irish side.
The appointment of O’Neill could have opened up the opportunity of more regular game time. Pilkington had dropped down to the Championship but was still in terrific form and was one of the standout players as Ireland drew 0-0 with Italy in a London friendly.
However, the former Stockport County man was forced to withdraw from several Irish squads owing to consistent injuries that had affected his club form. After making his debut at 24, Pilkington still only has nine caps and one goal as he approaches his 30s.
He has regained form this season, having been extremely impressive for Cardiff, sometimes playing in an unfamiliar role up front. The 28-year-old has the technical ability and creativity that Ireland lack so much at times but in the past year has rarely been considered beyond provisional squads by O’Neill and co.
Given the fact Pilkington is also able to use both feet and has a good goalscoring ability, it is difficult to see O’Neill completely ruling out the former Huddersfield man. However, the emergence of Callum O’Dowda has pushed Pilkington further down the pecking order.
Nick Menezes, Pundit Arena
Read More About: anthony pilkington, anthony stokes, darron gibson, giovanni trapattoni, ireland international football, irish football, kieran westwood, marc wilson, Martin O'Neill, premier league football, stephen ireland