Wrestling with such decisions is what the Derry native does best.
Yet, with 499 days marked off his tenure when his team face Poland in a crucial Euro 2016 qualifier on Sunday, he is no closer to settling on the future of his first choice custodian.
So far, in his 11 games, David Forde has primarily occupied the starting spot between the posts – registering three clean sheets – and he has only used four other men in that period in Shay Given, Keiren Westwood, and Rob Elliot.
Now, O’Neill is facing a dilemma. Stick with the reliable Forde even though a relegation scrap with Millwall is bound to have dented his confidence? Or turn to Westwood following a superb campaign with Sheffield Wednesday? Some may argue Given, who has helped Aston Villa into the FA Cup semi-finals, should also be in the conversation, but former Ireland stopper Wayne Henderson believes standing by Forde is the right thing to do.
“I certainly don’t envy the coaching staff because they have some tough decisions to make,” said Henderson. “Do you go off club form? Or do you stick with who you’ve have been trusting? It’s been unquestionable David (Forde) has been outstanding for Ireland and I’ve seen how good he has been for Millwall, but they are fighting relegation and his confidence must have taken a hit from that.
“But he is a hugely experienced keeper and has proved that he can handle the pressure in big international games. I think he has earned the right to be first choice and they should stick with him.”
Aside from the issue of club form, there are also individual traits that should shape the argument.
While all three are solid shot-stoppers, Westwood’s aerial dominance is weak, Forde’s distribution can be patchy, and Given’s kicking is often wayward.
It’s clear that each contender has their strengths as well as their weaknesses, which is also the case for the likes of Elliot and Birmingham City’s Darren Randolph. So what will be the deciding factor in choosing his main man? Well, consultation with goalkeeping coach – and unofficial kingmaker of the pivotal position – Seamus McDonagh has been ongoing for some time with last summer’s trip to the United States for two friendly games used to assess their options. During that trip New York-born Ryan Meara and Manchester City youngster Ian Lawlor both trained with the squad, although curiously Forde played the full 90 minutes against Portugal and Costa Rica. Perhaps that showed the manager’s mind is already made up.
Then why bring Given out of international retirement? Now 38, the Donegal man is arguably past his prime and has played just 67 games in his last five seasons with Villa.
Yet, ex-Ireland international Dean Kiely sees his experience as a valuable asset.
“For all of the media hype going on about Shay returning, it will have no bearing on his decision. He is his own man and if he feels it is right, then he should crack on and work on with it,” said Kiely.
“But watching him play, he’s doing great. In a funny way, the period that Shay went without playing for Villa has probably cleansed his body and made him hungry for games again.”
Given certainly believes he can regain the spot, which he relinquished after Euro 2012, and stated this week that he feels “as sharp as ever”. Yet international teams cannot afford to rely on players lacking match sharpness.
Sure, Given knows what is required at this level, he has done well in Villa’s FA Cup run, and has previously worked with McDonagh, but his lack of first-team football over recent seasons suggests it would be a gamble by O’Neill to turn to him.
The same could be said of Newcastle United’s Elliot, who was cut from the final squad, but faces an uncertain future at club level due to competition from
Tim Krul as well as emerging youngsters Jak Alnwick, Freddie Woodman, and Karl Darlow. It is something that O’Neill has undoubtedly discussed with McDonagh, but they have consistently, and somewhat surprisingly, placed both Elliot and Given ahead of Randolph in the pecking order despite the latter registering 57 clean sheets in his last 217 games.
However, with crunch Euro 2016 qualifiers rapidly approaching, the time has come for O’Neill to not only make a call on his current No 1 but also who is next in line. The manager can no longer ignore this decision.
“I think they need to start looking at the longer term. Forde won’t be able to go for many more years and the next evolution of the number one spot for Ireland is fast approaching,” said Henderson.
“Shay [Given] has been and always will be an idol of mine, but from a coaching perspective it was a little strange reintroducing him to the squad. There are other, younger keepers who the management should be looking at.”