“They’re difficult games,” he admitted. “I think we had Bosnia before we went to the last Euros and it was walking pace. So they are difficult games. Especially nearer the time, people don’t want to get injured or what have you.”
By contrast, Duff made no bones about the rather more accelerated impact he expects to see in the warm-up games between now and June — starting with tonight’s friendly against Switzerland —from those players who have a point to prove and, perhaps, a place to play for in Martin O’Neill’s Euros squad.
“I’d like to think they’d be running around like men possessed,” he said. “They probably don’t want to hear it but, yeah, they want to impress. We know what Robbie Keane can do, we know what Seamus Coleman and John O’Shea can do. It’s the lads on the fringes who need to come in and put in a proper performance where Roy and Martin say, ‘wow’.”
With club football reaching a critical point of the season, it might be too much to expect a firework display at the Aviva tonight, though O’Neill did rather drily express the hope that those attending this Good Friday fixture will be there for the football rather than just being ‘here for the beer’. “People coming here because this is one of only places they can get a drink? I was wondering why my family wanted to come,” he said in one of his more successful attempts at humour yesterday.
The manager himself will certainly be keeping an acutely sober eye on proceedings, as he seeks to refine his options for France this summer.
“I have a fair idea,” he replied yesterday, when asked how many of the final squad of 23 are already fixed in his mind, before adding that there “definitely are” some places still up for grabs.
“Also,” he went on to point out, “you have to take into consideration in the next six or seven weeks, that some of the major players who have been great might fall foul of injury, so players here should take this opportunity, late and all as it may be, to feel as if they have got a chance.
“Listen, let’s be fair about it, the players who are coming in late here have a bit to do, I must admit, to go and cement something. Everything would probably have to go pretty well for them individually.
“But it’s not impossible and it’s happened before, and that’s why I’d like to open the door for them, to feel as if they have got a chance. And, for instance, one or two of them — let’s say they didn’t make it — they know they are right maybe for the World Cup campaign coming up almost immediately.”
Among those falling into that category will be Alan Judge, Shane Duffy and Rob Elliot, with new call-ups Jonny Hayes, Mark Doherty and the returning Stephen Gleeson much longer shots to gatecrash the travelling party to France.
Of Blackburn’s Duffy, still only 24, his fellow centre-half John O’Shea said approvingly yesterday:”I’d know a few lads who have gone down there on loan from Sunderland and they’re speaking very highly for him, so I just hope he keeps progressing as he has been. He’ll definitely be one for the present and the future, that’s for sure, because he’s got a lot of great attributes for a central defender.”
Fitness permitting, the currently injured Harry Arter will definitely get another opportunity to stake a claim, but it’s not just the younger or less experienced players who, if selected, could well reap the benefit of strong performances in tonight’s match and in the remaining three friendlies before the Euros express pulls out of the station in late May.
Two comparative veterans who could do with making up lost ground are Kevin Doyle and Aiden McGeady. They might have 140 caps between them but both are under some pressure to prove that their best days in the green shirt are not behind them.
But by some distance the most senior member of the squad, with 143 caps all to himself – not to mention 67 goals – will miss out tonight, Robbie Keane not having recovered in time from what O’Neill called “a bang on the knee” sustained while playing for LA Galaxy at the weekend. And it’s an injury which, currently being monitored, might yet also rule him out of Tuesday’s game against Slovakia.
Swedish, Belgian and Italian scouts will all be in town to run the rule over Ireland in these Easter friendlies just as, according to Martin O’Neill, Irish eyes will be keeping a close watch on the games being played over the next few days by our Euro Finals group opponents.
It’s another reminder of what’s really at stake tonight, as the days and games tick by to June 13 at the Stade de France.