The manager didn’t demur yesterday when it was suggested to him that while tonight’s game is the second audition in the space of a couple of days, we’ll have to wait until the visit of the Dutch in late May — a game which will take place on the eve of his final Euros squad announcement — for something much closer to a full-scale dress rehearsal for the Irish production at France 2016.
Shane Duffy showed on Friday night against Switzerland that there is still time for fringe players to stake a claim but, even so, the sense that the door is more half-closed rather than half-open is hard to escape in any even cursory consideration of the likely final 23.
And, looking ahead to the Dutch game yesterday, O’Neill only reinforced that impression when allowing that it would take something “reasonably exceptional” in terms of an individual performance for his thinking to be radically altered at that late stage.
Of course, someone suddenly injecting the the X Factor that might shake the manager’s equations is not the only way for opportunity to knock. The other, admittedly less palatable kind, is that a space is created by injury to one or more of those names who are already on the list in indelible ink. It’s an unhappy possibility already thrown into sharp relief by the freakish toll injury has taken on Ireland’s strikeforce going into tonight’s match, with Robbie Keane, Jon Walters, Kevin Doyle, and Daryl Murphy all unavailable. Doyle and Murphy are, of course, notable examples of how players can be lost even to friendly fire.
“I don’t think you can do anything about that, it’s just the nature of the game,” said O’Neill yesterday after expressing the hope that his players come through tonight’s test unscathed. “If I speak to Mick McCarthy now, Mick will be disappointed that Daryl Murphy is injured. He hopefully might only miss the one game, but even so, all those games (for Ipswich) are important — and these are friendly matches — so I can imagine what the club manager is thinking about it.
“But we have to play the games. Let’s say you didn’t play the games, and a player goes to his club and gets injured the following week and then you think, ‘I should have done it’. There’s nothing really I can do about it.
“It’s been a bit of a disruption, yes of course. For a start, I wanted Kevin Doyle to play — he started the game (on Friday) and I wanted him to play at least for an hour, if not the whole game, depending on how fit he was and how he was feeling. Naturally, it was an opportunity for him. I thought he started the game quite well and he was obviously unfortunate to get injured, so that was a disruption I wasn’t expecting.
“I was probably thinking that Robbie Keane would be involved at some stage or another in one of the two games, and I really thought that Jon Walters would probably be fit as well, so yes, it was a bit of a disruption, but these things happen.”
On the subject of Keane, a question at yesterday’s press conference appeared to plant a seed in O’Neill’s head when he was asked if he’d consider bringing the veteran to France even if he didn’t make the 23.
“I haven’t thought about that, I must admit,” the manager initially responded, “but I think Robbie would be thinking he would want to try to make the 23 first and foremost, and then we will see how things develop after that. But he has been very influential in the group, he’s been very supportive the whole time he has been here and, even when he hasn’t started in matches, he’s still with the team. So, yes, that is a thought, I must admit.”
As to how he will cope with the chronic striker drought tonight, O’Neill observed: “We can adjust things. James McClean has played up front before — I have seen him play for Wigan there, where he has done exceptionally well. We can change things around anyway.”
At the other end of the pitch, Newcastle’s Rob Elliot should start in goal, a position where the competition for places in the squad took a turn over the weekend, as Jack Butland’s cruel injury while on England duty could improve the chances of Shay Given making a real impact at Stoke between now and the end of the season.
“Of course, absolutely,” O’Neill agreed. “That’s unfortunate for the young goalkeeper, but — I’m not picking Stoke City’s team — if that does give Shay an opportunity to play regularly between now and the end of season then, of course, it gives him a really good chance.
“Jon Walters was just filling us in and saying he felt he (Given) was just getting back to really full training now, so if this is a spur to him to feel as if he has got a chance, well done. But I will get an opportunity to speak to him in next 24 hours.”
Meanwhile, O’Neill will, as usual, keep his cards close on his starting 11 for the match against the Slovaks until shortly before kick off tonight but, at his press conference yesterday, he cast a few straws in the wind.
“Maybe (Jonny) Hayes and (Eunan) O’Kane again is a possibility. I’ll have a real think about it now. I think Wes (Hoolahan) has a good chance of starting.
“The players have been around now for the last seven or eight days, and I’m sure that they would like to gain some time on the field. It might not be possible for everyone but at least they’ve felt an involvement with the squad.”