When Cyrus Christie was named as part of the Ireland squad for these fixtures, there were raised eyebrows and questions of ‘who?’ Much googling ensued.
The Derby defender showed here on his debut that he is a serious prospect. Eligible to play through his grandmother Mary, who grew up in Clontarf before moving to Coventry, Christie certainly has plenty of promise and could well develop into an excellent footballer.
But for all of that potential, his route to international football provides further proof — not that much was required — that there remains a desperate lack of depth to the options available to Martin O’Neill away from midfield.
On paper, last night’s line-up, showing 11 changes to the team which kicked-off against Scotland, may have suggested otherwise but only Christie and David McGoldrick were new faces. O’Neill and Roy Keane have been looking long and hard for talent, unlike their predecessors, but the problem is that they are not finding any true quality.
In the centre, it seems, there is plenty of choice — though little doubt over the strongest combination, with James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan a favoured pairing. Even in the absence of both in Glasgow on Friday, David Meyler, a quietly impressive figure in a combative Hull side last season, did not feature. Here he became the first Corkman to captain Ireland since Keane, partnering his clubmate Stephen Quinn.
Darron Gibson and Jeff Hendrick got the nod in Scotland but only Hendrick featured here as a substitute, which elevated the word experimental to a new level of meaning — even if both sides lining out with rigid 4-4-2s may have pointed to a bygone era.
Across every other department though there is a noticeable lack of quality when it comes to reinforcements for the old reliables.
It was almost as if O’Neill stumbled upon Christie’s eligibility by accident, seeing how he had hastily drafted Brian Lenihan in for the game against Gibraltar and Germany on the advice of his Hull team-mates when Seamus Coleman’s absence was confirmed.
Lenihan, as Steve Bruce had said when he moved to Humberside from Cork City, is a player for the future who requires time at U21 level before he will be near a Premier League squad. Even though he returned to his club before the Germany game, with, ironically, Meyler filling the Coleman-sized hole, it would have been unfair to thrust him in no matter how dreadful Gibraltar turned out to be.
Perhaps it was a case of O’Neill only finding out about Christie’s Irish connection recently but the 22-year-old has been around a while — making over 100 appearances for Coventry before his move to Derby in the summer. His form there has helped them to the top of the Championship and earned inevitable comparisons with Coleman.
Both like to get forward and are quick on their feet and Christie could well become a very good player — especially seeing as he can also play on the opposite side of defence, where the next best option to Stephen Ward is Robbie Brady. On last night’s evidence, Brady should be used further up the field.
Elsewhere the options are sparse. Crystal Palace’s Damien Delaney is quite clearly not favoured by the management despite being a Premier League regular with piles of experience of playing both at centre-half and right-back.
Alan Dunne, Dublin-born despite a misleading Cockney accent having left for London as a child, would be a competent option but the Millwall captain is 32 and unlike his team-mate, David Forde, a late breakthrough is not quite as easy when you are playing outfield. Dunne said recently that he was still clinging onto hopes of a call-up but, rightly, O’Neill’s focus is on those who can be developed.
The impressive nature of Christie’s performance could be defined by Jozy Altidore’s barge on him after 65 minutes, which earned the American a booking. The Sunderland man was quite clearly frustrated that Christie had not put a foot wrong.
In Christie, evidently oozing confidence, Ireland may have found a gem. Now if only O’Neill could unearth a couple of more.
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