With record-breaker Robbie Keane expected to announce his international retirement in the aftermath of Euro 2016 and no other striker having stepped up to shoulder the goal load across the four games Ireland played in France, Martin O’Neill makes no secret the hunt for reliable goalscorer is now a top priority as builds towards the next World Cup.
“It would be nice to have a forward. We don’t have a Gareth Bale. We don’t have that. When Robbie doesn’t play — and obviously his career is in the latter stages — then we don’t actually have a natural goal scorer in that sense. If Robbie Keane had been 27, he would have been in our team in France. He would have been in the side because he is the one who can get us a goal. That’s what we’d been looking to do, for all the decent play we had. We need to try and get someone who can score regularly.”
Joe Mason at Wolves and Scott Hogan at Brentford are two candidates who have been making waves in front of goal, as O’Neill is well aware.
“I did go around and have a look at these players and obviously I’ll have a little look again. Sometimes it’s very difficult to make a judgement on a player who is playing a league or two below as to whether they could step up and do a job with this intensity at this minute.
“The higher up the players are playing the better it is, let’s be fair. But I don’t have a problem seeing natural talent there and thinking just because he’s not playing Premier League football that he might not be able to improve with us. That’s the point. If you’re good enough eventually you’ll find that someone will take a chance on you. But naturally, I am saying to you here it would be better if I was choosing players from higher divisions.”
As change inevitably takes root in the Irish squad following these championships, players like Harry Arter, Alan Judge and Callum O’Dowda can look forward to increased involvement with the senior team when preparations for the 2018 World Cup resume with a friendly against Oman on August 31, a few days before the new campaign starts with an away day in Serbia.
But a big bonus from France for the manager has been the way a couple of established squad members have, as he put it, become like new players.
“Jeff Hendrick, for instance. He had that bit of a shoulder injury but even though he was not playing regularly for Derby, he became a strong player for us and did really well.
“When I first saw him when I got this job, Jeff spent most of his time playing the ball back. Getting it and playing it back, getting it and playing it back. And I just said to him, ‘you’ve got to get turned, get turned and get at people, you’re strong’. That was my advice to him: you’re a midfield player, you’re supposed to be able to do these things. It’s fine to pass the ball back when you’re in trouble. But your first thought should be thinking about getting on a half-turn, looking forward and then driving forward which he did brilliantly in this tournament.
“Young Brady did brilliantly for us too. I think the younger players have kind of taken a bit of ownership and thought ‘it’s our time, our time’ and they stepped up and performed brilliantly. I think those players have come of age and that’s given us great hope.”
O’Neill’s reflections on the evolution in France lead, naturally, to his thoughts on those older soldiers who might now be considering calling it a day at international level: the likes of Keane, Given, O’Shea, Whelan and Hoolahan.
“I haven’t discussed it with them,” says the manager. “I thought that we would leave it naturally until after the competition. And if the players want to talk to me at any given time, I am there. I think 75% of them will know in their own minds what they want to do. But if they say either ‘listen here, I need you to push it over the line’ or ‘where do you see me fitting in?” then I would let them know as honestly as I possibly can where they stand.
“What I have noticed about the competition is the really good influence of John O’Shea. We know John anyway, and he’s very supportive of the team. Glenn Whelan is like me, he’s a moany git, honestly, but he’s really good and strong with the team. Listen, they will go back and have a think about it.
“Robbie playing in America — I don’t know what might be in his mind. These things happen. They look at the side and the younger players coming through, and sometimes the older players don’t want to feel like a liability around the place, or picked just because of reputation. But I will have a chat with them and see how they feel.”
One thing’s for sure, no less than time itself, football waits for no-one. And even as Euro 2016 continues on its way, Martin O’Neill is already musing on what his players’ performances in France say about their ability to rise to the challenges to come.
“We’ve done very well,” he says. “I’m obviously delighted with the team and the way they’ve performed and I don’t think there was an ounce of energy left in their bodies on Sunday. Do I think we should go into the World Cup with decent confidence? Yes. Do I think that some of the players have performed incredibly well, even beyond what they maybe felt themselves? Yes, absolutely.
“We’re back at it in a couple of months time and it’s back to a long gruelling campaign to try and qualify for the World Cup. I’ve never felt anything else other that we’ve gone into games trying to win, right way back to Georgia — and that game, eventually, was as important as the game against Germany. So there’s a long gruelling competition ahead and there’ll be points taken off each other again. And just when you feel you think you’ve cracked it, you’ll get stung. And just when you feel it’s the other way, you’ll roll back again. I’d just like us to try and qualify again, but qualification is totally different to the old tournament football. For us to enjoy this tournament, we had to go through 12 games of really tough work.”
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