New day begins for Irish football in Antalya

This week in Turkey, they celebrated Nehruz, a festival to mark the coming of spring, the traditional rituals to mark the occasion including jumping over bonfires and tapping eggs.

As you do.

Nehruz, meaning ‘New Day’, has been described as being symbolic of “renewal and almost a resurrection after a long winter.”

Not half as long as the one we have experienced in Ireland, sez you, which now seems to stretch all the way back to that penetrating chill which set in when the final whistle blew at the Aviva Stadium in November, with Ireland’s World Cup dream lying in tatters.

Resurrection might be too strong a word but renewal does seem pretty apt as, in the absence of bonfire-jumping and egg-tapping, Martin O’Neill will look for other signs of the coming of a new day for Irish football when his team take on the host nation in a friendly which, Turkish officials say, will attract close to a full house in the 32,000-capacity Antalya Stadium.

Not that the manager is planning anything revolutionary for the first game since Ireland’s World Cup campaign ended on such a crushingly low note against the Danes.

“No, I don’t see you have to make a radical change because you lose a game you were chasing,” he said at his pre-match press conference.

However, with no shortage of uncapped and relatively untried players waiting in the wings for the call to join a few of the more familiar faces in the cast, O’Neill did hint that he might take the opportunity to experiment, either at the start or during the game, with a 3-5-2 formation.

“We could play three centre-backs, we could play two wing-backs, it is certainly a thought,” he said. “If that is the case, Seamus (Coleman) can cope with any of that and it might be a matter of getting two centre-forwards playing as well in the side. There are a number of options. We would love to still do well in the game and have some experienced players playing to help the younger lads out. We’re looking forward to it.”

Certainly, O’Neill is not short of defensive picks as he draws up his plans, though whether he chooses to deploy West Ham’s Declan Rice in midfield or at the back, remains to be seen.

“We have enough, we’ve brought quite a number of central defenders if you consider young Rice might be able to play that position as well,” the manager said. “Shane Duffy has done exceptionally well in the last couple of seasons and particularly I think he could easily have started in the Euros in the game against Sweden. (To start against Italy) was a massive leap for him considering that when I saw him playing for Yeovil, when he was on loan from Everton, you wouldn’t have given him a big chance of playing in those games. He wasn’t particularly good but he has become particularly good, which is great.

“We’ve a number of players who have a bit of experience and one or two who maybe haven’t had that much. So it’s an opportunity for someone to stake a claim in the manner that Duffy did. He grasped that opportunity against Italy and never looked back.”

At the other end of the pitch, O’Neill accepts that the greatest challenge in the Irish football talent hunt remains trying to find a goalscorer to take up at least some of the burden which was shouldered for so long by one R Keane.

“Yeah, I would agree with you, to replace Robbie Keane and the phenomenal number of goals is tough to ask any of the three centre-forwards that we have at this moment. Shane Long has much more experience at international level than the other two and he’s participating at a higher level. But I don’t think that’s going to faze either (Scott) Hogan or young (Sean) Maguire. I think they feel up to it and feel, given an opportunity, they can turn any chances we make into goals. I think they are quietly confident about that but to ask them to end up with the career and the number of goals that Robbie Keane had — that’s tough going for anyone, never mind those young lads.”

Unusually for the manager, he was open enough when talking about his team to confirm two starters against the Turks. One, sitting beside him at the top table, was self-evident: the returning Seamus Coleman. But the other, Bradford City’s 32-year-old, Cork-born goalkeeper Colin Doyle, will end an extraordinarily protracted wait of 10 years and 304 days since he was last capped — against Ecuador in the United States in 2007 — when he takes his place between the posts later today.

“I think (Kieran) O’Hara is still learning the game and initially he would have been coming to join us here more for the experience than anything else but the way things develop and transpire it is always a possibility (he will play),” said O’Neill. “But I wouldn’t actually be thinking of starting him in the game. At this minute, I think I would hand that to Doyle.”


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