The conventional picture of Irish wingers at the start of this season would have had Daryl Horgan on his way up passing Aiden McGeady on his way down.
But with the World Cup qualifier against Wales in Dublin just over a week away, Martin O’Neill can now enjoy the rewarding view of both men thriving at Preston, with the 30-year-old McGeady winning the most glowing reviews for a scintillating resurgence in form which saw him named the Championship Player of the Month for February.
While the Ireland manager doesn’t discount the possibility the arrival of the former Dundalk express at Deepdale put the skids under the Everton loanee — “I’m not sure Aiden would necessarily feel that but you might be right” — he’s more inclined to think, after so long out in the cold at Goodison Park, McGeady has found, under sympathetic management at Preston, fresh inspiration from within.
“I think Aiden has had a look at himself and realised, ‘I’ve really got to do something, I’m not getting any younger’,” said O’Neill.
“This is not embryonic talent anymore. You have to fulfil it. We’ve been talking now for quite a number of years, even before I came in here, about Aiden fulfilling this fantastic footballing talent he possesses.
“It’s one thing talking about it but it’s another thing actually doing it. Not just doing the things you like but doing the things you don’t like.
"Now, it’s up to him for the next couple of months to keep this going at club level and see about his position. But the natural talent he has, he should be playing in the big league.”
The reason, he isn’t, O’Neill believes, is because at club and international level McGeady hasn’t consistently delivered enough end product, in the form of goals and assists, over the years.
“Aiden has got Premier League feet, there’s no doubt about it. He’ll twist and turn and go past players and there’s not many people in the game can do those things.
“But he can frustrate himself, Aiden. He knows, he’s a bright lad. He’s actually a bright boy. He knows he sometimes just can’t help himself. Seriously, he can’t help himself.
"He feels, ‘I can do this’. And then what’ll happen is he’ll have lost the ball, the team will have attacked from that mistake and it might have caused a few problems.
“But Aiden has known these things since he was 18 or 19. As you know, I’ve always had great faith in his ability and evidently now (Preston manager) Simon Grayson has given him this freedom to go and express himself. And I think he’s really enjoying it.”
Horgan has also hit the ground running at Deepdale but, judging by O’Neill’s comments at yesterday’s squad announcement, Irish fans are more likely to see the Galwegian make his debut in the green shirt in friendlier circumstances than a high-stakes World Cup qualifier against Wales.
“In terms of Daryl, we have the game against Iceland coming up,” said the manager.
“Is he in front of some of the other players at this minute who have done exceptionally well for us? I’m not sure about that at this moment but the experience he’s had, not just from Dundalk but with Preston, and the confidence he will take from starting matches and scoring goals at Championship level, which is great for him, I think this can only stand him in good stead.”
While the likes of James McClean, McGeady and Horgan boost O’Neill’s attacking options out wide and centrally, the manager is stretched much thinner at the back for the visit of Gareth Bale and company, with Shane Duffy and Robbie Brady already ruled out, and clarity awaited on injury worries Ciaran Clark and Richard Keogh.
But, never one to turn an injury drama into a crisis — “You curse your luck for five minutes and then you get on with it” — O’Neill suggested yesterday that’s he’s quietly confident the latter pair will be fit for selection, while also expressing relief and delight that the veteran John O’Shea chose not to hang up his international boots after Euro 2016.
O’Neill also declined to rule out James McCarthy despite his latest hamstring setback, saying that he has spoken to the player who, he reported, is “pretty upbeat” and expects to be back in full training by the end of this week.
As to the prospect of another row with Everton’s Ronald Koeman over the fitness of the midfielder, O’Neill couldn’t resist a quip.
“We can’t be blamed for this one, Everton have had him all this time,” he observed. “So I don’t think they can attach blame to us, though you never know.”
O’Neill will “pare down” his bloated provisional squad of 39 in due course but, for now, there will be delight on the part of Brentford’s John Egan and Reading’s Liam Kelly that they have received their first senior call-ups while, after his long spell on the sidelines, there’s a welcome return to the panel for Newcastle United goalkeeper Rob Elliot whose serious knee injury — sustained in a friendly against Slovakia this time last year —ended his season and ruled him out of the Euro finals in France.
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