Ireland has, for the most part, been saddled with workmanlike if not wholly prolific strikers down the years.
Robbie Keane, of course, is the anomaly to this rule (with a deeply impressive one goal every two games ratio) but Irish strikers have generally tended to follow the “one goal in four games” pattern – the likes of Niall Quinn, Tony Cascarino all tended to have in an around that ratio, as do Shane Long, Kevin Doyle and Jonathan Walters now.
The glaring problem, however, is that since Keane’s decline and subsequent retirement, goals from the front have dried up.
This was no more obvious than in Ireland’s last two matches, both of which they failed to score in. Indeed, of the two strikers involved against Iceland on Tuesday, namely Long and Doyle, the former has scored just one international goal since last May (against Moldova) while the latter has scored twice in the last five years.
Granted, the limited amount of international football Doyle has played since then distorts that somewhat but even that gives rise to some questions. With the greatest of respect to the former Cork City striker, and one has to respect the level of commitment of flying over from Colorado for every international squad even though he tends not to be given match time, is the 33-year-old now only in the squad because of a lack of alternatives?
It seems a cruel joke that Ireland had seven or eight players in the squad for the Iceland game all capable of playing on the wing (a lot of whom were on the pitch at the same time in parts) and yet O’Neill only had two central strikers to call upon (without counting McClean in an unfamiliar forward position).
The worrying thing for Ireland is that this was not a problem borne by injuries – Walters and Daryl Murphy (one goal in 23 games) aside, there were no additional striker options in the original squad – and every one of those players is the wrong side of 30.
And yet, less than 24 hours after Ireland firing blanks against Wales on Friday, a young Irish forward in top form was taking the Premier Division champions apart in Turners Cross.
Cork City’s Sean Maguire has picked up from where he left year, scoring six goals in as many games (as well as one in the pre-season President’s Cup) to fire John Caulfield’s side to the top of the league with a 100% record so far. Although he didn’t score against Dundalk last week, his movement and passing in setting up Karl Sheppard’s brace showed that there is more to his game that simply putting the ball in the net himself.
The chasm that existed between playing in the League of Ireland and playing for the international side is shrinking, that much is clear. The league is developing a reputation now where players can learn their trade and stay a bit longer before moving to England, rather than simply joining a Premier League academy at the age of 15. Granted, the lack of opportunities in said academies has probably played a role in this but it has been to the league’s benefit nonetheless.
One need only look at how big a deal was made of the fact that eight of Martin O’Neill’s Euro 2016 squad last year were forged on Irish shores before going on to enhance their reputations in England.
— Ricardo J (@R1card0_J) June 15, 2016
That gap was further narrowed last November when Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle – Dundalk players at the time – were drafted into the Irish squad for the World Cup qualifier in Austria. Goalkeeper Gary Rogers had been called up in earlier squads by O’Neill but this felt different, this felt like a barrier was being broken down, like years of calls to take the league seriously were finally being listened to. Dundalk’s Europa League run has kicked the door open and now it’s up to O’Neill to look at what’s inside.
There is an argument that picking Maguire for Ireland would be a risk, and it would be, but is sticking to the status quo really that much of a better option? Besides, is it really more of a risk, for example, then plucking 21-year-old Callum O’Dowda from Oxford in League Two and throwing him on in a friendly? Is it really more of a risk than picking a 33-year-old Kevin Doyle whose best years are, sadly, now behind him? Is it more of a risk than picking Boyle and Horgan last November?
The 22-year-old scored 28 goals in all competitions last year, and already has international experience with Noel King’s under-21 side. It shouldn’t take a move to England to get him into the senior squad, and the mentality that it probably will is only going to hurt the league’s chances of keeping their best players. If he’s ready now, pick him now.
The fact of the matter is that Ireland are in no position to be turning their noses up at in-form strikers, regardless of the league they’re in. Maguire is the most in-form Irish striker in any league at the moment and if he continues in this vein of form until June then there is absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t be selected for the friendly against Uruguay.
Maguire is a striker undoubtedly on the rise – Ireland capitalising on that as early as possible could be to the parties’ mutual benefit.