While Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark have emerged as Martin O’Neill’s first-choice centre-half pairing, the absence through injury of the Newcastle United man means one of those places at the heart of the defence is up for grabs when Ireland take on Austria on Sunday.
Since Duffy is looking nailed on to start, the contest for the other berth seems a straight choice between Richard Keogh and John O’Shea, with the smart money on the former to be the one to collect back-to-back competitive caps, having featured — alongside the Sunderland man — in the scoreless qualifier with Wales.
Keogh, it’s true, had an unhappier time of it in the recent 3-1 friendly loss to Mexico in New Jersey, suffering almost as much as his sidekicks in an experimental and problematic three at the back alongside Duffy and John Egan.
But the Derby County skipper still echoes his manager’s comments about the positives to be taken from the experience.
“Of course it was a tough game against Mexico but it was a good workout for the boys,” he says. “We want to win games but it was all about getting the pitch time and getting fitness into the guys. And we were better off for it against Uruguay.
“The lads who came in last Sunday have been involved for a while now and they put in a good performance and spurred us on to victory.”
Keogh sat out that one, as did O’Shea, but now it’s all about who gets the nod for the big one on Sunday.
“Of course it is, everything has been building up to this,” says Keogh. “The two games have been nice to get pitch time for people but the focus has been on Austria and has been since we stepped into camp.”
Does he feel the time has dragged in the protracted build-up?
“Not at all, any time you come in to play for your country is fantastic. The last four summers for myself, I have had games and it’s been great to see all the lads. We are such a close group when we are together. You forget how long we have been away, to be honest, with the games coming up. It’s such a great honour to be involved.”
Asked where he thinks he stands in the central defensive pecking order, the 30-year-old gives an honest response. “Who knows?” he says. “I’d like to think that I have proven in games for my country that I am ready when called upon, I have played in some big games and played well, so I will train hard, that’s what I do, and the manager will make a decision on what he feels is the best side to get a good result against Austria.
“That’s the calibre of the squad, and the manager and the coaching staff pick a team which they feel will get the best result. At the Euros I didn’t start the first two games but I told the manager I’d be ready if he needed me and that’s what I showed (when coming in for the famous 1-0 victory over Italy).
“We have a very good group of players; there’s going to be times when you play and others when you don’t. The manager’s shown he’s willing to make big decisions in big games at crucial times. He’s that experienced and had that great a career so he will make the right decision for Austria.”
Another of Keogh’s rivals for a centre-half spot is his roommate and clubmate Alex Pearce. “Of course, we play together at Derby, and me and Pearcey have known each other a long time so it’s quite nice,” says Keogh.
“Even though we are competing with each other, we help each other. We have great players (in the centre-half position), like Sheasy, who I have got to know since I came into the squad. I have learned a lot from him and we have done well together. And we have Duffy as well.
“But as a professional you back yourself to play, don’t you? You just have to prove that and I am no different. Ask any player and they’ll want to play. Not every player can, but as long as you have shown you are good enough, you have given yourself a chance.
“I don’t care about competition — I have had that throughout my career and I have worked for everything I have got.”
A certain starter in defence for Ireland on Sunday is another of Keogh’s teammates at club level, Cyrus Christie, the understudy to Seamus Coleman who will be asked once again to step up to play a leading role against the Austrians.
“I have played with Cyrus at Coventry and Derby so it’s great to see him come through and play so well,” says Keogh. “It was a big blow for us to lose Seamus as he’s such a brilliant player, brilliant person and captain. It would be tough for any team losing a player of that calibre. But when Cyrus has played he’s shown he’s more than capable and it was nice for him to pop with a goal against Uruguay.”
As for Keogh himself, he is approaching Sunday in the way he likes to approach every game, indeed, the only way he knows how.
“You have to prove as a professional that you are right and ready,” he says. “I train hard and keep myself right and if you get the nod you have to produce. So come Austria, I will be ready.”
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