Although absent from this week’s trip to Turkey as he continues his recovery from knee surgery in January, Jon Walters has assured Martin O’Neill that he is not planning to retire from international football.
After Wes Hoolahan and Daryl Murphy announced they were hanging up the green shirt, there was speculation the 34-year-old might follow suit.
But speaking at the Irish squad’s training base in Belek yesterday, O’Neill was happy to report that, all being well, the striker intends to carry on in the service of his county.
“I have spoken to Jon and he is obviously waiting to get over his injury,” said the manager. “I think he is improving. Jon would like to continue, depending on how things go in the next couple of months.
“He can still bring value to the squad because at this minute we have got Shane Long and we have got the two young lads (Sean Maguire and Scott Hogan) now trying to impress, which is great. If he wants to do it, I also think he would be a great influence, a bit like John O’Shea was.
“He has earned that right as well, His performances in getting us to the Euros were fantastic and while he missed a lot of the finals out there in France — which was a major disappointment to him — he has been terrific. He has been really, really committed.
O’Neill thought it was futile to look too far ahead, however, declining to speculate if the Burnley man might still be available should Ireland qualify for the Euro 2020 finals.
“The team might change around,” he pointed out, “lads might come in and be absolutely brilliant and then there is no room for some of the senior boys.”
That such matters can be unpredictable was underlined yesterday when O’Neill revealed the less welcome news that highly-rated Reading midfielder Liam Kelly had declined a call-up for this trip because he is pondering an alternative international future.
“Obviously he’s born in England and wants to keep those options open and that’s fine,” said the manager, though he appeared less than impressed at the 22-year-old’s communication on the issue.
“I did actually leave a message or two and he got back to me by text. But I’ve always said here that it’s the player’s choice and if he wants to think that England might come in, that’s entirely his decision.”
By contrast, West Ham’s Declan Rice appeared to effectively rule out a switch to England when speaking to the media after picking up his U19 Player of the Year award in Dublin on Sunday night.
O’Neill certainly hopes that will be the case but has no intention of presenting the 19-year-old with any kind of ultimatum.
“I don’t want to be pressurising him but I think he feels pretty strong (about playing for Ireland) and hopefully that will work out,” he said.
Although he has made his name in the Premier League this season as a centre-half, Rice, as he does for the Irish U21s, was deployed in a midfield role in yesterday’s senior squad training game, which took place in balmy temperatures under cloudy skies.
“I think playing in a number of positions is good for him for a start,” O’Neill observed.
“If he ends up playing in a three or at full-back or at centre-half or if he plays defensive midfield, at this stage, it’s fine.
He might have a preference for a position at the moment but in 18 months time he might change his mind completely and think: ‘I’m more comfortable here or I can influence the game in some aspect if I’m in a certain position’.
“At club level he will have to find that. If, for instance, he steps in here in a defensive midfield role and does well in the game then of course it’s something we could consider as long as he’s comfortable playing in those positions.”
Having begun with good news about a veteran striker, O’Neill ended his pitch-side briefing with the assertion that Friday’s friendly against Turkey will represent a real opportunity for the younger guns, Maguire and Hogan, to stake a claim.
“Oh, absolutely, very much so. I’ll see how we decide to use them but those two will play some part in the game. One might start, one might not, I’m just not sure right at this moment. But, yeah, very much so, a chance. Given time, I think both those players can score goals.”
Martin O’Neill’s hopes of enticing QPR winger Paul Smyth to the Republic set-up have suffered a blow after Northern Ireland’s U21 manager Ian Baraclough claimed the player was staying put. Belfast-born Smyth, 20, is part of the North’s U21 squad for tomorrow’s Euro qualifier against Spain but didn’t rule out defecting in an interview published three weeks ago.
But Baraclough said last night: “Paul Smyth is a Northern Ireland player,” he asserted. “He is an integral part of our U21 squad and Michael O’Neill likes him a lot. “Paul feels very much at home here and he is fully committed to Northern Ireland.”
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