Most of the candidates have around 20 club and four international games to press their claims, but by June 3, when Uefa’s deadline closes, the 23 players tasked with charting Ireland’s Euro 2016 odyssey in France will be known.
Martin O’Neill used 21 players during the 12-match qualification campaign and whilst most of those are assured of places, a number of vacancies are up for grabs over the next six months.
For instance, though Darron Gibson and Kevin Doyle featured along the road to France, neither sampled competitive action for their country in 2015 and remain rife for the chop when O’Neill and his assistant Roy Keane finalise their selection.
Conversely, Harry Arter and Rob Elliot didn’t figure in any qualifier and yet their exposure on the Premier League circuit this season makes them genuine options.
O’Neill has declared the double-header friendly against Switzerland and Slovakia in late March as showcases for the supporting cast to step forward and history demonstrates they should believe him.
Unlike his predecessor Giovanni Trapattoni, the Derry man embraces evolution, evidenced by the fact only four starters from his competitive debut in Georgia survived in the side which 14 months later conquered Bosnia- Herzegovina in the play-off.
O’Neill will continue to tweak his team to suit the challenge and, given the tests at the finals against Sweden, Belgium and Italy, he’ll be careful to bring with him a roster equipped for the group stage and hopefully beyond.
Subtracting the standard three goalkeeper quota, the manager will have 20 outfield players, ideally comprised of two options for each starting position. Of course, the best laid plans can be disrupted by unforeseen events. Trapattoni discovered just that by losing two midfielders, James McCarthy on compassionate grounds and Keith Fahey to injury, during a five-week period leading up to the finals in Poland and Ukraine.
Still, competition for plane tickets to Paris seems far more intense this time.
Seven of the panel didn’t get a minute on the pitch during Euro 2012 while two more, Paul Green and James McClean, banked less than 15 minutes each by the end of their five-week duty.
O’Neill is of a different mindset. His tradition for utilising the breadth of his squad is encouraging for those embarking on a mission to regain some respectability for the country at the expanded showpiece amid the disaster of four years ago.
Here, we assess the selection headaches facing the Ireland management team, splitting the definites from the maybes, highlighting some in danger of missing the trip whilst identifying a few wildcard bets to catch the attention of O’Neill and Keane in the final few months of rehearsals.
GOALKEEPERS (3 places)
Shay Given, Darren Randolph.
Keiren Westwood, Stephen Henderson.
Having displaced David Forde for the home qualifier against Poland in March, Shay Given played the next five ties until a knee injury during in his last fixture against Germany enabled Darren Randolph see out the campaign impressively. Assuming Given’s injury resolves itself (he underwent a successful second operation last week), then he’ll be going to his third major tournament alongside Randolph.
Forde, albeit restored to Millwall’s team over the Christmas period, faces rivalry from Robbie Elliot for the third spot. The Newcastle United stopper will also be back on the bench once Tim Krul recovers from injury but 10 Premier League starts is difficult to ignore.
Although Championship regulars Keiren Westwood and Stephen Henderson have been involved in the squad in recent months, they are outside tips for inclusion.
DEFENDERS: (8 places)
Seamus Coleman, John O’Shea, Ciaran Clark, Richard Keogh.
Marc Wilson, Stephen Ward, Cyrus Christie.
Alex Pearce, Shane Duffy.
Paul McShane, Tommie Hoban.
Despite O’Neill’s back-five undergoing deep transition during his tenure, he is unlikely to stray from the tried and tested in this bracket.
The composition of his rearguard to try shackle Zlatan Ibrahimovic & Co at Stade de France may be impossible to predict but Seamus Coleman, fitness permitting, will fill the right-back role, with the central- defensive duo coming from John O’Shea, Ciaran Clark and Richard Keogh.
That viable left-back alternatives are so scarce to O’Neill will ensure Stephen Ward gets the nod, yet Marc Wilson may end up there as he did for the latter stages of the play-off in Zenica. Squad mainstay Alex Pearce badly needs club action to retain his place and could make way in the final shake-up for either Shane Duffy or Paul McShane, both regular centre-backs for their clubs.
McShane was a controversial late call-up by Trapattoni at the expense of Kevin Foley four years ago and remains popular with players and staff alike of the current set-up.
MIDFIELDERS/WINGERS: (8 places)
Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick, James McClean, Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan.
Harry Arter, David Meyler.
Aiden McGeady, Darron Gibson, Stephen Quinn.
Alan Judge, Richie Towell, Eunan O’Kane, Alan Browne.
In contrast to other areas of the pitch, central midfield became the constant for the Ireland team as their fortunes enjoyed an upturn in the second half of 2015. O’Neill finally settled on a system and the players within it from the time Scotland visited Dublin in June for the 1-1 draw.
That was the first of seven qualifiers which James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick and Glenn Whelan harnessed the 4-3-3 formation (suspension kept Whelan out of the trip to Poland in October).
“I’m not so sure we would have the players to be able to just play two in central midfield,” said O’Neill in explaining the rationale for his policy.
“It’s alright playing with width, and I love playing that way, but if you’re not getting the ball, then some players in the team becomes redundant.
“While you have an idea that someone might be able to drop back in, the strength that we’ve had gave us some dominance in the recent matches.” Pinpointing deputies for that trio is where the intriguing element arises.
Holding midfielders David Meyler and Darron Gibson are considered like-for-like replacements but a most compelling case is being advanced for Harry Arter’s elevation. Even though injury has restricted his senior involvement to a substitute’s outing against England, the Londoner will be afforded the chance of transferring his stellar form at Bournemouth onto the international arena for the March friendlies.
As O’Neill noted last month, Gibson’s lack of fitness and game-time at Everton is seriously jeopardising his position in the squad.
The same can be said of Aiden McGeady. A starter in the first five qualifiers and provider of two precious goals in Tbilisi, his star has waned for club and country.
Stephen Quinn, too, made a telling contribution to the early phase of the campaign only for injury to limit his availability thereafter. Back in Reading’s starting team, the midfielder has ground to make up with Ireland.
Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady may alternate as Ireland’s “No 10” in France and James McClean will also feature, most likely sporadically. His recent red card aside, the winger is peaking in form for West Bromwich Albion at the perfect time.
Of the potential bolters, Brighton’s new recruit Richie Towell will need a late surge akin to McClean’s of four years ago to force his way into O’Neill’s thinking.
FORWARDS (4 places)
Jonathan Walters, Shane Long.
Robbie Keane, Daryl Murphy.
Kevin Doyle, David McGoldrick.
Adam Rooney, Anthony Stokes.
Ireland’s most influential player of 2015, Jonathan Walters, is a guaranteed starter, either up top or in a withdrawn role on the right where O’Neill considers his aerial power a key asset.
The manager has posed valid questions of Long’s ability to develop into a great goalscorer, rather than a scorer of great goals like the one against Germany, but he’ll easily make the cut and will be eyeing a spot against the Swedes. After that, in spite of still awaiting his first international goal, Daryl Murphy’s strikerate at club level puts him in pole position to travel. And Robbie Keane, for all the talk of him being past it, will join him and be kept in reserve for when a goal is most needed.
Behind that quartet in the pecking order is uncapped Adam Rooney. His haul of 25 goals in the calendar year deserves plaudits but because they’ve come in the Scottish Premier League, he’s up against it in his quest to snaffle a place. David McGoldrick has just been ruled out for another three months though injury and Anthony Stokes requires a club revival, a football one instead of the night variety, to return from the abyss.
FINAL SQUAD PREDICTION
Given, Randolph, Elliot.
Coleman, Christie, O’Shea, Keogh, Clark, McShane, Wilson, Ward.
McCarthy, Hendrick, Whelan, Arter, Meyler, Hoolahan, McClean, Brady.
Walters, Murphy, Long, Keane.