It’s the perceived battle for the number one spot which will keep the pundits and the back pages occupied between now and Sunday, a head to head between the goalkeeper who lost his place at West Ham this season and the goalkeeper who was named Sheffield Wednesday’s player of the year.
And it’s a contest which was thrown into particularly sharp relief by the contrasting fortunes of the two netminders in the friendly against Uruguay. But the only man with the power to make the decisive call before the World Cup qualifier against Austria is not about to prematurely show his hand.
“I have plenty to contemplate but I don’t think I should be discussing that particular issue now,” was Martin O’Neill’s cautious response in the aftermath of Ireland’s 3-1 victory at the Aviva. “I’ve been very pleased with both goalkeepers. I knew Westy at club level — he’s a really talented goalkeeper. Just get his head right and he’s great.”
And is his head right? “He’s really fine now. He’s got over the team losing out in the play-offs and he made a really good save against Uruguay. And Darren, I don’t think he’s let us down too often.”
Unfortunately for Randolph, in what was an instance of bad timing on every level with Austria so close at hand, he fluffed his lines when failing to connect with a free-kick and being left stranded for Uruguay’s goal. By contrast, Westwood, who replaced him in the second half, produced the save of the match to deny Jose Giminez a second. O’Neill, however, sought to play down the implications of Randolph’s error.
“It’s part of the game,” he said. “If it’s in people’s heads, then good luck to them. Lots of things were in my head as well as a player and I had to cope with it.”
Asked if Randolph’s confidence might be dented by the error, O’Neill replied: “No, it shouldn’t, not at all.”
The goalkeeping position isn’t the only one attracting scrutiny, with O’Neill obliged to consider several options this week, especially in the middle of the park where Glenn Whelan, Harry Arter, Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan are all in contention to start.
“You start to think: ‘Can I slot someone in there, can they do a job?’. It’s all on to the Austria game and I’m hoping there are players in there who think: ‘Do you know what, I was pretty regular during the European Championships but maybe my position is in jeopardy now’. Jeopardy might be too strong a word, but: ‘I might not start this game’.”
A certain starter is James McClean who burnished his growing reputation as Ireland’s go-to man, not just for energy and passion but, increasingly, for goals, with another terrific run and finish against the South Americans.
“It was a very similar goal [to the one he scored in Vienna],” said O’Neill.
“He picks it up and goes. He’s on a pretty big high. Against Mexico, we had him out in that wing-back role and then eventually he played left back but I think the only time he ever plays back for us is when we play in the MetLife. I’m not so sure he wants to play there again. He’s capable of doing it, it’s nice he did that but he was dying to get on Uruguay and he made a big impact.”
At the back, Kevin Long’s first start for Ireland, which turned into the full 90 minutes against Uruguay, allowed O’Neill a good look at the Corkman, enough to assess both his strengths and, even more to the point, the areas in which the manager feels he needs to improve.
“I thought he didn’t do too badly. He’ll not mind me saying he’s got certain things to work on. Getting his body shape right for set pieces, for instance, seeing the ball coming in, seeing the danger there, not square on and not standing beside someone either. He’s a really good lad. He wants to listen and wants to learn.
“We had a couple of days down in Fota and he played some of the game in Mexico, but the rest of the players, other than young (Andy) Boyle, I kind of know. I know what John (O’Shea) can do. I know what Richard (Keogh) can do. I know what Pearcey (Alex Pearce) can do and I wanted to start John Egan in the USA to have another look at him.”
The Irish squad are to hold an open training session at the Aviva Stadium at 11am on Wednesday as they continue to ramp up their preparations for Austria. Supporters can access the Stadium via Lansdowne Lane and through the Podium entrance.
Yesterday, the squad undertook a recovery session following the game against Uruguay and the good news is that there are no injury concerns as the players prepare to resume full training this morning.