By Liam Mackey
While he fervently hopes that any end of era in Irish football is still a matter of months rather than days away, Martin O’Neill has said he expects a “natural exodus” of senior players once his team’s interest in World Cup 2018 is over.
“Well, I think there was talk after the Euros that one or two might drop away and, of course, age catches up with you,” the manager conceded.
“You’re hoping for younger, fresher blood, boys who can not only step in but eventually be as good as the players who are leaving. I think it’s just a natural progression that one or two will probably end up calling it a day. I’m hoping it’s not Friday or Monday.
“You mentioned John [O’Shea] and a couple of other boys around the same age who might think: ‘I’m not certain of playing any more, and there will be a new look again after the World Cup qualifying, whenever it may be’. And I think there would be a natural exodus, that would be my view.”
Of course, the manager’s focus at this moment is entirely short-term, with tomorrow’s game against Moldova and Monday’s match in Wales perhaps offering some of the younger generation a chance to make their mark.
“Sometimes you might be a bit concerned about throwing a young lad into a big, big game, particularly away from home but, by the same token, some young lads come in and just accept the pressure,” said O’Neill.
“That is something you will get to know during the course of time.
“I don’t mind risking. I wouldn’t have a problem this week if I thought that someone could eke out a goal for us. And there’s every possibility that could happen.”
With his team having found the net at home just twice in this campaign, it’s not surprising that O’Neill is especially preoccupied with locating a cutting edge for Friday’s game in Dublin against the group’s bottom side.
But the manager points out that it’s hardly a brand-new concern.
“This has been a generational problem,” he observed. “Whatever we say, we are not going to rip teams apart, regardless of opposition. Yes, we scored a few goals against Gibraltar but a lot of teams did, at the end of it all. We have found it difficult scoring goals, and it’s been a problem since I came in.
“Robbie (Keane) has been the last major goalscorer that we’ve had here, somebody you could rely on scoring the goals. And that’s the point: You felt that when it was in the penalty area, he’d know what to do. You always felt he could sniff one out.
“But we haven’t had that. We’ve had to rely on different things. You never know, maybe some of the players coming in now could do that. Hogan, young Maguire, might end up over the next couple of years being the answer to that.”
But could either one of them be the answer tomorrow?
O’Neill, who has been closely monitoring the two players — and fellow uncapped striker Aiden O’Brien of Millwall — in training all week, said that such a judgement needs to balance risk and reward.
“We’ll see,” he added. “Some of them might take to it like a duck to water.”
Asked if, in a bid to unlock the Moldovan defence, one of his long-time favourites, Aiden McGeady, might be in a position to roll back the clock on Friday night, O’Neill replied: “Of course, I don’t see why not. The thing about McGeady is he’s match-fit. He missed out against Serbia and would have been involved. He came on in the game against Georgia and was a wee bit disappointed with the chance that fell to him. He took it a little bit early but I must admit, having seen it back on the replay, it did hang there for a little while. But, yeah, McGeady is a match winner or can be and this could be his stage.”
Given that first-choice players like Jon Walters, James McClean, Robbie Brady and, of course, Seamus Coleman are out tomorrow, O’Neill will be relieved that all of his eligible squad came through a full training session in Abbotstown yesterday.
Injury worries Shane Long, Harry Arter and James McCarthy were among the 30 players who took part.
Long had sat out previous sessions with a thigh problem but now looks set to be available. Arter missed Bournemouth’s scoreless draw with Leicester at the weekend but also came through yesterday’s session. But while McCarthy continues to work back to full fitness, the Everton midfielder must remain a significant doubt for the World Cup games given his complete lack of competitive football so far this season.
This article first appeared in today's Irish Examiner.