“I would like him to be with us, if that’s at all possible.”
These were Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill’s words on John O’Shea and Russia 2018, when appearing on TV3’s coverage of the Euro 2016 final. I’m a huge fan of O’Shea. I mean, what man can claim to have scored a last minute equaliser against the world champions, chipped Manuel Almunia from the edge of the box, scored a last minute winner at the Kop end and, of course, nutmegged Luis Figo.
But O’Neill’s comments worry me. Surely it’s time for a new era of Irish heroes. It’s time for O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane to become ruthless.
Ireland had the oldest squad at Euro 2016, an average age of 29 years and 297 days. With 971 caps, it was touted as a major plus for Ireland, a good mix of old, cool heads and young guns. But it marks a worrying trend for Ireland of building teams around heroes who have, unfortunately, moved past their prime.
Shay Given retiring and returning to the international fold is a key example. Now, I’m not saying that we need to have a vastly inexperienced team. A glance at the squad with the youngest average age, England, tells you that youth is not necessarily a recipe for success. But, there is a real opportunity there for Ireland, should we choose to break new ground and show confidence in some other players.
Let’s not get carried away by an excellent Euros campaign, Ireland will find it extremely difficult to qualify for the World Cup in 2018. One team qualifies directly, with second place entering a seeded qualifier. While Ireland got a very favourable draw considering their shocking seeding, navigating Serbia, Austria and Wales, not to mention a tricky away day against Georgia, may be beyond the Boys in Green.
So, is now not the time to blood a new team? While there is nothing I would love to see more than the sea of green washing past the Iron Curtain, it may prove a step too far, and it is now time to use this campaign in the correct manner.
My worry is that we play a very similar team over the next two years and don’t qualify. We are then left with a severely ageing squad going into the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign. Jon Walters will be 36, Aidan McGeady 34 and Wes Hoolahan 38. Glenn Whelan will also be 36 while Given will probably still be in the 23-man squad at the age of 44. Why not throw caution to the wind, use our qualification campaign as an opportunity rather than a doomed procession?
Let’s construct a starting eleven around young, established stars such as Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and Shane Duffy. Let’s finally give players such as as Harry Arter and Eunan O’Kane the opportunity to don green in a competitive game. Let’s bring young, exciting starlets like Jack Byrne, Callum O’Dowda and Ian Lawlor into the fold, and even give them time in the friendly against Oman in seven weeks’ time.
I’m as nostalgic and dewy-eyed as the next Irish fan, but O’Neill’s comments worry me. Our average squad age at USA 1994 was 29, and it was eight years before we graced the world stage again. The fallow period between 2002 and 2012 is not soon forgotten either.
Martin O’Neill has done wonders with this squad, but he can do even more if he makes some bold calls and moves forward with a fresh, confident purpose.
Let’s prove Alan Hansen wrong, again, and win everything with kids, or at the very least qualify. This Irish team has made everyone believe again, O’Neill needs to harness that and strive to continuously improve.
Rob O’Hanrahan, Pundit Arena
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