Ireland begin the process of putting their World Cup heartbreak firmly behind them this week as they take on Turkey in an international friendly.
The Boys in Green step out for their first match in four months on Friday evening, as manager Martin O’Neill starts to assemble the group of players he feels can lead Ireland to Euro 2020.
The boss made has added a number of new faces to the squad – some on merit, and some down to injuries or retirements. Some, meanwhile, have just been left out of proceedings right now, which O’Neill has downplayed but does raise question marks over their future in the national setup.
Among the new recruits are players that will feel, should they impress in Antalya, can force their way into the manager’s preferred starting lineup in this year’s UEFA Nations League and beyond.
Here are three such players:
Enda Stevens. With current first-choice Stephen Ward injured, O’Neill called up Stevens, Derrick Williams and Greg Cunningham to fill the void (in a position that Cyrus Christie can also cover). The latter has withdrawn due to injury, which leaves Stevens as the favourite to start against Turkey on the left side of defence.
The former Shamrock Rovers and Aston Villa man has been performing well with Sheffield United this season – and having worked his way through the English football ladder, the 27-year-old will feel that now is his time to make the mark at international level. With Ward coming in for the odd bit of criticism over the years, the role could well be up for grabs.
Conor Hourihane. The Aston Villa midfielder is starring in the Championship this season, standing out as a key player in the side’s promotion bid. With nine goals from midfield, the 27-year-old is a constant threat and could be the man to provide the creative boost in the centre that Ireland have generally lacked when Wes Hoolahan wasn’t on the pitch.
Ireland aren’t particularly short of midfieldes, it has to be said, but with James McCarthy injured, Glen Whelan not included and Jeff Hendrick’s form looking shaky for well over a year, a decent performance in Antalya could see Hourihane stake a huge claim for inclusion in competitive games.
Sean Maguire. O’Neill has gone to great lengths to justify Maguire’s non-inclusion in the Ireland squad while the striker was tearing up the League of Ireland with Cork City (reiterating that stance this week), but the 23-year-old’s form with Preston North End (five goals in four games since coming back from a four-month injury) can’t quite be dismissed quite as easily.
With Daryl Murphy retired and Shane Long having scored just one goal (for either club or country) in the last 13 months, the striker spot right now is well up for grabs. Aston Villa’s Scott Hogan has also been very impressive recently, but Maguire is likely to get the nod for the Turkey clash. Should he impress in that, it seems almost inconceivable that he would be not be given the starting berth in the Nations League and beyond.