Keep the green engine running – Ireland’s plan for World Cup qualification

As the warm summer days of Paris and Bordeaux begin to slowly fade into memories for the travelling Green Army, focus turns to September and Ireland’s chances of World Cup qualification.

The performance of, and iconic images created by, Martin O’Neill’s Boys In Green in France last month created a new wave of support for the national side akin to that of Italia ’90.

The appreciation of the effort and pride shown was more than even O’Neill himself could have predicted.

 

As O’Neill and Roy Keane begin to prepare their squad for qualification for Russia 2018 it essential that they continue to harness this positivity within the squad and supporters alike.

The performance of Ireland at EURO 2016 was defined by the defeat to Belgium, in the searing heat of Bordeaux the Irish players struggled to adapt to their esteemed opponents and they were defeated.

However, their response to the loss typified a new Ireland, under the stewardship of O’Neill and Keane, an Ireland not happy with being glorious nearly-men, but one that will alter themselves tactically and respond.

Heading into their first World Cup qualifier in Serbia on September 5th, O’Neill is unlikely to oversee significant personnel changes, with the bulk of the squad secure of their positions following a good tournament.

Ireland’s primary concern lies within the potential retirement of stalwarts such as Shay Given, captain John O’Shea and Robbie Keane.

All three have enjoyed outstanding years of service but there is a strong that another qualifying campaign is beyond them.

Given is likely to be utilised in a coaching role, with O’Shea and Keane likely to move towards more club football as their role is reduced with Ireland.

Any potential international retirements presents O’Neill with a decision to make, whilst all three are likely to have a minor future role to play, he needs to find leaders of the required quality and nous within his squad.

Alongside the trio of potential retirees, Jon Walters, Glenn Whelan and Wes Hoolahan are also advancing in years and despite their impact under O’Neill, Russia 2018 is likely to be their last campaign with Ireland.

However, despite the likelihood of potential departures, there is a huge cause for Irish optimism as their performances in France indicated that Ireland is ready for a change, however anti-nostalgic that maybe.

Darren Randolph has removed any potential doubt as to his role as Ireland’s No.1, backed up by Kieren Westwood, providing the quality in goal that is needed post-Shay Given.

Seamus Coleman, a probable future captain, alongside Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark/Richard Keogh and Robbie Brady, is a back four with real potential and the youth to form a bedrock for the future.

 

The performances of Jeff Hendrick, and James McCarthy as a holding midfielder, in France have confirmed their status as indispensable to Ireland, with James McClean also pushing his claims for starting place.

The issue in midfield is replacing the goals and creativity of Walters and Hoolahan in future, as both have often provided the crucial link for Ireland.

The 2018 qualification campaign could see the emergence of Bournemouth duo Eunan O’Kane and Harry Arter as key to Ireland, both have endured a stop-start international careers so far, and both can provide the energy and creativity that will be needed to break down opponents.

Jack Byrne, recently returned from a loan spell to Manchester City and Callum O’Dowda, recently signed for Bristol City could also both figure, as O’Neill seeks to maintain alternative options within the squad.

Despite failing to score in France, Shane Long maintains his position as Ireland’s primary goalscoring threat and his presence will be definitive to Ireland’s progress.

Aside from the Southampton striker, Ireland have a genuine dearth in attacking options, which shows little signs of improvement.

Daryl Murphy received some plaudits for his selfless performances at EURO 2016, however his goal return, alongside that of Simon Cox and David McGoldrick is simply not good enough to provide an alternative to, or partner of Long.

There is some speculation that Kevin Doyle could be parachuted in as an emergency short-term option, however an alternative goalscoring source needs to be found by O’Neilll.

World Cup qualification will bring a reality jolt from a fantastic summer, but despite the inevitability of change, it should not be feared, Ireland need a nudge towards the future and it should happen this autumn.

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Feargal Brennan

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