Martin O’Neill left to work off scraps

If last night’s concluding qualifier was to provide a glimpse into the future of Irish football, then it’s difficult to be optimistic.

Not so much the defeat to Poland gave cause for concern but the age profile of a team potentially awaiting another year for a competitive game should the play-offs not yield progression to next year’s European Championship finals.

Even without veterans Shay Given and Robbie Keane in the line-up, the average age of Ireland’s starting team amounted to near 28.

Seamus Coleman turning 27 yesterday didn’t help that calculation but the worry remains about the prospects of John O’Shea, Wes Hoolahan and Jon Walters lasting another two years in the Ireland jersey.

Worse still, those granted starts in recent games such as Richard Keogh and Jeff Hendrick really need to be playing higher than Championship level if Ireland are serious about challenging Serbia, Wales and Austria for the one guaranteed ticket from next year’s World Cup qualification campaign.

Whatever it is about Ireland finding it difficult to negotiate a path to France and the expanded Euros, the next campaign offers no such margin of error.

It was 500 kilometres north in Warsaw in Koszalin that Hendrick first came to the notice of the Irish football public.

In May 2011, his winning goal against the Poles in a Uefa qualifier instigated a blaze of glory for Ireland’s U19s which would only be ended by a stellar Spanish team at the semi-final stage of the finals in Romania two months later.

While the Derby County midfielder has fulfilled his potential by flourishing in the Championship, he is the sole member of Paul Doolin’s team that day to push on and win senior caps.

Both 23, Hendrick and his former St Kevin’s Boys colleague Robbie Brady have demonstrated under Martin O’Neill during this campaign the prowess, confirming Ireland have two players capable of playing another decade as mainstays of the new-look side.

Whether Brady has been asked to operate on the wing, in the middle or, like last night, at left-back, he’s functioned well and in keeping with the degree of excitement which accompanied him to Manchester United as a 15-year-old.

Hendrick, too, enjoyed his moments in Warsaw on his fifth straight start under O’Neill.

Beyond that, O’Neill is working off scraps for new blood, reliant on the granny rule to pluck an addition for his crew.

Although he and Roy Keane were in Waterford on Friday to watch Noel King’s U21s stroll past Lithuania, the two best players on the pitch – Jack Byrne and Josh Cullen – hold the status of untried teenagers at this point in their uprising.

With Jack Grealish gone, the latest duel-eligible player in demand, Danny Crowley, is keeping his options open.


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