May 31st, 2016 was a special night for Republic of Ireland under-21 international Callum O’Dowda.
The then-Oxford United midfielder, not long turned 21, had surprisingly been drafted into the senior squad by manager Martin O’Neill on the same night he was due to finalise his squad for the upcoming European Championships, and while there was never any realistic prospect of O’Dowda making the final 23, he still made his Ireland debut in the 2-1 defeat to Belarus at Turner’s Cross.
Despite the fact that it was a critically important period for O’Neill and the Ireland squad, insofar as he had to be certain he was bringing the right group of players to France, O’Dowda’s lack of experience was deemed not to be a problem as he entered the field of play in Cork. A friendly just days before Ireland would take to the pitch in competitive action against Sweden at the Stade de France was seen to be of little significance in that regard.
Which is why O’Neill’s rationale for not picking either Cork City’s Sean Maguire or Cillian Sheridan of Jagiellonia Bialystok don’t add up.
It was interesting that, when he was announcing the 37-man squad for the upcoming games against Mexico, Uruguay and Austria on Monday, he would be asked specifically about those two strikers given the clamour for their inclusion. Even more interesting was O’Neill’s response:
— FAIreland (@FAIreland) May 15, 2017
“I think a couple of lads are ahead of him at the minute in terms of experience, as much as anything else which is something we might have to draw upon against Austria.”
— FAIreland (@FAIreland) May 15, 2017
With the greatest of respect to O’Dowda, Maguire and Sheridan are both already more experienced than he was when he was first called up. The former is an ex-under-21 international who has been to England, has spent a couple of years in West Ham’s academy setup, received first team experience over there with Accrington Stanley in League Two, came back to Ireland and featured in the opening stages of the Europa League last year.
The latter, meanwhile, has an even more decorated back story. He has played in the top divisions in Scotland, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Poland, he’s won silverware at most of them, he’s played in the Champions League, he’s in a rich vein of goalscoring form for the league leaders in Poland’s Ekstraklaska. If he was Polish he’d almost certainly be in their national team by now, and yet he’s omitted from Ireland’s because he has less “experience” than, for example, Adam Rooney?
Not to single out Rooney, but that only serves to add to the point. The 29-year-old Aberdeen striker’s only taste of actual international football, as in match time and not just being part of the training squads, was in nine appearances for the under-21s, the last of which was in 2010. Would the experience that he can provide, should O’Neill need to “draw upon it against Austria.” be that much greater than that which Maguire or Sheridan can offer?
It also makes the inclusion of Kevin Long, while definitely welcome, a little bit puzzling. The 26-year-old has plenty of experience in the lower leagues in England, with two very encouraging performances in his first two Premier League games for Burnley thrown in for good measure, but he is another player whose experience (in the international setup especially) is minimal.
For players like Maguire, the only way for them to get experience is by being called up to these squads. O’Neill is notorious for picking unnecessarily large panels for every match – was there anything to stop him from bringing the aforementioned forward duo to New Jersey to face Mexico? The chances of a full-strength Ireland team starting out there are slim anyway so what harm would it really have done?
The friendly against Uruguay at the Aviva is more than enough preparation for the World Cup qualifier against Austria, why could that not have been the “serious business” friendly and let the trip to the US be a chance to let some new faces get a bit of experience? Christ, even Joe Lapira got a cap out there.
— Oisin Langan (@oisinlangan) September 26, 2016
Fairly or otherwise, all this does is add further fuel to the theory that players have to either be in the English game or have gone through it at one point or another for consideration. The callups of Dundalk’s Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle last November should have proven that this is not the case and yet the nagging feeling persists that Maguire will have to move to British shores to be taken seriously.
Plus ça change.
On the Mixer Irish Football Podcast this week, we’re joined by Galway United manager Shane Keegan, we react to Martin O’Neill’s latest Ireland squad, plus the usual discussion of League of Ireland matters.