When the dust settles on Ireland’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, attention must turn to the future.
Regardless of whether Martin O’Neill stays on as manager or not, the focus must now immediately shift towards the qualification campaign for Euro 2020 – and indeed even beyond that for the sake of the long-term future of Irish football.
Given the age profiles of some of the players from this campaign, there are likely to be retirements – the likes of Wes Hoolahan, John O’Shea, Jon Walters, Glenn Whelan and Daryl Murphy could all decide to call it a day – while there will be a new generation of young Irish players coming to the fore over the next year to 15 months.
With the Euro 2020 qualifiers not beginning until March 2019 (though with a tie-in to next year’s UEFA Nations League), we’ve got the crystal ball out and had a look at who should be in the Ireland squad to lead the charge for (hopefully) our next major finals appearance.
Darren Randolph, Rob Elliot, Keiren Westwood
Ireland are both lucky and unlucky in the sense that, while there are few goalkeepers coming through and solidifying starting spots, this position is probably the least in need of reinforcement right now and all three goalkeepers are at a good age for their position.
It will be interesting to see where under-21 international Kieran O’Hara’s career takes him over the next year (be it still at Manchester United or elsewhere), and if he will potentially do enough to catch the manager’s eye.
Seamus Coleman, Cyrus Christie, Matt Doherty, Robbie Brady, Greg Cunningham, Kevin Long, Ciaran Clark, Shane Duffy, Richard Keogh, John Egan, Declan Rice
The future looked a lot brighter for Irish defenders in the not-too-distant past as Kevin Long, John Egan and Andy Boyle all seemed to be pushing for spots after impressing for their clubs. Right now, however, the situation looks a bit darker. The status quo could be maintained (minus O’Shea but with the addition of versatile Declan Rice) unless the aforementioned trio get back to where they were just several months ago.
The full-back slots appear to be less of an issue, with the returning Seamus Coleman and Greg Cunningham adding to a contingent that should see Robbie Brady resume his duties at left-back. While Stephen Ward’s international career should not be over, meanwhile, by next year one would expect Brady (and possibly Cunningham) to have overtaken him.
James McClean, Callum O’Dowda, Jeff Hendrick, Conor Hourihane, David Meyler, Harry Arter, Daryl Horgan, James McCarthy, Alan Judge, Liam Kelly
The problem with the Irish midfield seems to be that with a number of players all on a similar level of technical ability, making the case for one to either start or be dropped is a difficult one. With Glenn Whelan and Wes Hoolahan likely to retire and Aiden McGeady’s place in the squad under a bit of scrutiny, it is here more than ever that new infrastructure will have to be put in place.
It is also here, arguably, that the bulk of Ireland’s emerging talent lies. The likes of Liam Kelly, Conor Hourihane and Ryan Manning all rose to prominence last season (though Manning has struggled to get a look-in this year), while James McCarthy and Alan Judge will hopefully have put their injury nightmares behind them to return to the squad.
Sean Maguire, Scott Hogan, Shane Long, Cillian Sheridan
The retirement of Robbie Keane brutally exposed the dearth of prolific Irish strikers to call upon, and the decline of Kevin Doyle and Shane Long only exacerbated it. Doyle has since also been forced to retire, while Long has now gone the bones of 50 games without a single goal for club or country.
Therefore, something radical now needs to be done. With Walters and Murphy gone, O’Neill (or whoever is in charge) has no other alternative but to turn to inexperience, and by the time the qualifiers roll around (and assuming his career trajectory remains on course) then Sean Maguire will have established himself as the standout candidate to lead the line.
Elsewhere, Hogan will hopefully have found the form that convinced Aston Villa to pay £12m for him in the first place. Long, meanwhile, should be retained but as a backup option.
Which brings us to Sheridan. Arguably the natural replacement for Murphy given his abilities as a traditional number nine, the Jagiellonia Bialystok striker shouldn’t be disregarded just because of the league he’s in – Poland’s national side selects players from the Ekstraklasa and Sheridan led the line in a team fighting for the title last season. To suggest that it’s a level below the standard for the Ireland team is ludicrous.
The Starting XI:
A massive criticism of O’Neill’s tactics is that there is no Plan B – defensive, lobbing it up the pitch and hoping for the best and hoping for the best.With that in mind, the manager should really have two distinctive starting lineups in mind – one direct and one more technical.
‘The Technical XI’:
The goalkeepers and back four are arguably the most stable part of the team right now, but that’s not to say it can’t be improved upon. Brady should be moved back to left-back as his influence in midfield has diminished significantly since Euro 2016, while if Long can establish himself in Burnley’s first team it could well lead to him usurping Clark’s spot in the national setup.
In midfield, Jeff Hendrick hasn’t convinced in an Irish shirt for the best part of a year, while a trio of McCarthy, Arter and Hourihane (provided the former stays fit and the latter maintains his form) provides the right balance of aggression, tenacity and creativity in the centre.
Out wide, O’Dowda has to be trusted now just as he has been with Bristol City in the Championship to great results, while McClean would benefit from a calmer, more methodical system both for himself and the team as a whole.
Up front, Maguire’s ability to drop back negates the need for a number ten (though Kelly should be kept in mind if one is being considered), plus his ability to drop into space and stretch the opposition defence allows O’Dowda and McClean to run in free behind him, in a similar fashion to how he worked with Karl Sheppard and Stephen Dooley at Cork City.
‘The Direct XI’:
Because sometimes route one can be the best way, a more direct style tends to be the best way for awkward away matches. For this, the defence would be largely kept the same, while the midfield would see Meyler (or Rice, depending on his West Ham progression at that point) come in to add that layer of protection and McCarthy’s tackling work with Arter’s interceptions to shut the oppositon attacks down.
Up front, meanwhile, Sheridan’s proficiency as a target man lends itself well to this style of play, while Maguire’s partnership with Jordan Hugill at Preston means that he has experience of working with a taller centre forward. He can make himself available for knockdowns should they become available, drifting inwards into space and throwing the defence off guard.
On this week’s episode of the Mixer Irish football podcast, we’re joined by Cobh Ramblers manager Stephen Henderson to analyse Ireland’s World Cup play-off defeat to Denmark.