Ciaran Clark is wearing a broad smile at the Irish squad’s training base in Abbotstown — and with good reason.
Frozen out at Newcastle United to the extent that he contemplated a move in the summer, and having not featured for Ireland since the 4-1 Nations Cup defeat to Wales just over a year ago, the 30-year-old defender has suddenly found himself back in favour with both club and country.
For the Magpies, he celebrated his unexpected recall by scoring in two successive games and, tonight, he will don the green shirt again as Ireland take on New Zealand at the Aviva.
Clark admits that Steve Bruce’s decision to recall him was one he didn’t see coming.
“No, I was just training as if it was same old, same old,” he said. “Just keep training, always be there, and try to give the manager something to think about. Thankfully I did. I know it was after Leicester, 5-0, a bad result, that he wanted to change things up. And that was me back in.”
And back in for Ireland too, something else he hadn’t seen coming over the course of a year in which he had not only become resigned to missing out on the Euro 2020 campaign, but began to think that maybe his whole international career was at an end.
“Yeah, there did come a point where I probably felt I was going to miss out on this one,” he says of the Euro qualifiers.
“The end of my international career? Yeah. That does go through your head when you aren’t playing games. But there was always a thing in the back of my mind knowing I was going to be playing games eventually, whether it was at Newcastle or not. I always thought there would be a chance, but it is still not nice to think about it.”
Had Clark been playing earlier this season, he might have been the one to capitalise on the absence of Richard Keogh. As it happened, John Egan was ideally placed to step in alongside Shane Duffy and with that combination already having a settled look to it, Clark knows that McCarthy is unlikely to want to disrupt his centre-half partnership.
“The lads have done brilliant in this campaign, so it would be a big call to do that,” he says. “For me, just to be back in has been brilliant. It’s another step forward. I’ll just take it day by day, game by game really. We’ll see what the week brings and then I’ll be back to club level again.
“I’ll have to try to keep playing games so I can stay in the squad. I’m just happy to be involved. Getting some minutes against New Zealand would be great. Then we’ll look forward to the Monday night game and go from there.”
At the other end of the experience spectrum, ’keeper Kieran O’Hara will be getting just his second cap tonight, having made his debut in the friendly against Bulgaria.
The Manchester-born 23-year-old, currently on loan at Burton Albion from United, qualifies for Ireland through his father’s Galway family background. Indeed, although growing up not much more than 15 minutes from Old Trafford, he was actually exposed to GAA at an early age.
“Yeah, when we were younger my Dad tried to get me to play a bit of Gaelic football,” he says. “It was good for me. As a goalkeeper, it kind of suits you playing with your hands and stuff like that. It’s something I enjoyed, but there comes a time when you have to choose what you do, and I obviously chose football.”
He joined United at the tender age of eight and the parent club still keeps a close watch on his progress at Burton.
“It’s a pretty good situation they have at United,” he said.
“There is a loan manager who corresponds between the club and the player, keeps you informed with constant feedback on performances, making sure everything is OK on and off the pitch. So there has been good feedback and recognition of what I have done on loan. It feels like you are still part of the club, not like you are away.”
While O’Hara’s ambition is to play for United, the irony is that, at this moment, he is much closer to playing competitive football for Ireland than he is for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team. Indeed, any setback for Darren Randolph, who is being rested tonight after his recent injury scare, and O’Hara could find himself facing Denmark on Monday.
“As a kid, you grow up with it being a high-pressure position, so it’s nothing new being put into a big game,” he said.
“So I definitely feel comfortable. I believe in myself and I know I am good enough. It wouldn’t faze me at all. You never know what is going to happen in football. It’s a crazy game so you have to be prepared and mentally ready for whatever is thrown at you.”