Mick McCarthy suffered a significant blow on Thursday afternoon when it emerged that he may have to take on Georgia and Switzerland in less than three weeks time with a completely new central defensive pairing.
The Irish boss has started all of his competitive games with the duo of Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy. However, Derby County confirmed that the former would miss the rest of the season thanks to a knee injury while Brighton outlined that the latter will miss “weeks” with a calf injury.
With Keogh definitely missing, and Duffy looking like a major doubt, it appears as though the Irish boss will have to draft two new centre-backs into his starting XI for the crucial qualifiers.
But what are his options?
Let’s take a look at who could fill the spots at centre-back in the potential absence of both Keogh and Duffy.
The obvious choice who is as good as guaranteed a start against Georgia and Switzerland now that Keogh is out of action indefinitely.
Egan has found it hard to break into McCarthy’s team for competitive games, despite captaining the side in their friendly win over Bulgaria, however, the Sheffield United centre-back has been brilliant at club level.
The 25-year-old has taken to life in the Premier League easily, with his display in The Blades’ recent away win over Everton the highlight of a tremendous season for Egan so far.
Many have felt that playing and impressing at such a high level should have been enough for Egan to be a starter in the heart of the Irish defence even before the injury to Keogh and it now appears that he will get his chance to shine.
With Duffy also a major doubt, these two qualifiers could be massive in the international career of the Sheffield United man.
Long partnered Egan at the back in Ireland’s last game against Bulgaria which is probably a strong indication that they are the preferred back up duo.
The Burnley man has made 12 appearances for Ireland so he is relatively experienced at international level and in fairness to him has always performed quite well for the national team.
His problem, however, lies in his lack of game time at club level for the Clarets over the past couple of seasons making just 13 appearances in total in the last two campaigns.
McCarthy has his “players must play” philosophy which doesn’t necessarily bode well for Long but it’s difficult to argue against him getting a start should Duffy eventually miss out.
Somewhat of a forgotten man for both club and country of late, Newcastle’s Ciaran Clark has only featured once for the Magpies this season and is yet to appear for Ireland under McCarthy.
Clark is the most experienced of the natural options at centre-half having played 32 times for Ireland, but he hasn’t even made a squad since McCarthy took over with his last game in green coming in the 4-1 Nations League defeat to Wales.
His lack of game time will surely be a worry but McCarthy values experience very highly and Clark has featured in some very high-profile games for the Boys in Green in the past.
The 30-year-old should certainly be in the squad, but it’s hard to see him getting a start ahead of both Egan and Long.
A left-back who has more recently been converted into a centre-half, Derrick Williams is an option McCarthy could certainly look at.
Williams has started the season excellently with Blackburn Rovers, keeping four clean sheets and scoring twice in seven league games.
He has only ever featured once for Ireland, in a friendly defeat to France last year. Williams has been operating at a high level throughout this campaign and has the versatility to also play at left-back – another position McCarthy will have to address for the Georgia game.
Williams has never made a full squad under McCarthy but given Ireland’s current injury issues he should at least find himself in the 23 for the two upcoming games.
Injury meant that Nathan Collins could not make his debut for the Irish U21 side earlier this month but fit again, he could be a wildcard selection.
The 18-year-old has become a key part of Stoke City’s first team over the past year or so even captaining the club on a couple of occasions despite their difficult start to the season.
Collins is still very young but he has shown maturity and ability far beyond his years at the heart of the Stoke defence this season and could be an strong option for McCarthy to look at.
In truth, it’s more likely that he features for Stephen Kenny’s side this international break but McCarthy’s hand may be forced given the fact that he’s a natural centre-back playing regularly for his club.
A mid-season injury in the last campaign meant that Darragh Lenihan couldn’t build on a strong start to the campaign but alongside fellow Irish international Derrick Williams he has begun this year in strong fashion.
Lenihan only has two caps to his name at international level but represents a more experienced choice than Collins for example given the fact that he has played over 100 games in the Championship.
He is another who hasn’t made a squad under McCarthy but may see himself in the next 23 with Keogh and Duffy more than likely both missing.
The Blackburn defender also fits McCarthy’s “players must play” narrative which should also work in his favour
Seamus Coleman (Switched from right-back to centre-back with Matt Doherty taking his position)
Conor Masterson (QPR and Ireland U21 defender)
Dara O’Shea (West Brom and Ireland U21 defender)
Jimmy Dunne (Fleetwood Town defender)