There are seven forwards named in Martin O’Neill’s provisional squad for the upcoming summer friendlies against Celtic, France, and the USA.
Jonathan Walters and Shane Long have been around the block many times. Sean Maguire, Scott Hogan, and Aiden O’Brien are recent arrivals on the international scene. And Graham Burke of Shamrock Rovers and Preston’s Callum Robinson are the brand-new additions to the attacking ranks — the latest contenders to be handed a shot at putting the ball in the net for Ireland.
“We have a problem with it,” said Martin O’Neill yesterday, once more addressing the old bugbear. “We do not have a Robbie Keane and we don’t have anybody here that you would think at this minute would be almost semi-guaranteed to get you a goal in important situations.
“If you’re asking my opinions as we sit here now, I think young Maguire can take people on and does have an eye for goal. Around the penalty area he’s quite dangerous. Hogan, he’s lacking a bit of confidence, I think. I think he thought he was going to have a big, big season with Villa but it didn’t happen. I like him around the box but he can do better with his hold-up play — I still think that’s important for a centre-forward, particularly at our level. He can get you a goal. Asking whether he’s going to be prolific at international level is another thing.
“Jon, after Robbie Keane, would be the next in terms of scoring goals. Shane plays irregularly at club level and doesn’t score the goals at this minute but we are still depending on him, this is the point, because he can stretch teams. That’s what we have.
“Robbie Keane was the last person we had who you felt he would go onto a field and he’ll carve a goal out for you. That eventually is what wins matches for you, guys who can put the ball in the net.”
And so Burke and Robinson enter the picture. The former is currently the leading scorer in the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division and, with perfect timing, his most recent worldy for the Hoops — a screamer against Cork City — left his boot just after the Ireland manager had taken his seat in Tallaght Stadium.
Although it won’t count as a full international debut, Burke looks to be in with a strong chance of donning the green shirt in Celtic Park in Scott Brown’s testimonial on May 20 — even if he would be expected to have played for Rovers away to Sligo the previous night.
“If he gets the chance, then go take it,” said O’Neill. “That would be my advice to him on the field of play: Go and play your game. He has definitely got nice ability and this is an opportunity and it will be nice to see if he can progress.”
Robinson is the other newbie upfront who will look to use the game against Celtic as a showcase since, pending completion of the paperwork which will rubber-stamp his eligibility to play for Ireland, he will be unable to feature in the games against France and the US. Also receiving their first call-ups in O’Neill’s latest squad are Peterborough goalkeeper Conor O’Malley and Millwall midfielder Shaun Williams.
Some rather more senior figures will be excused the match in Glasgow, among them Shane Duffy and John O’Shea. The latter won’t travel to Paris for the Stade de France friendly on May 28 either but will make one final farewell appearance for his country against the US at the Aviva on June 2. Stephen Ward will miss all three games to give a troublesome knee some additional recovery time at the end of the season.
Captain Seamus Coleman, however, will definitely be available.
“I would have given him the option to miss out the end of the season as the Celtic game only fell into the equation late on,” O’Neill explained. “But he wants to play.”
And asked if James McClean would be in Parkhead, O’Neill smiled and replied: “Do you think he would miss that.”
Meanwhile, the evergreen Glenn Whelan has once again been named in an Irish squad, having thus far given no indication to the manager that he plans to follow John O’Shea into retirement.
“I don’t think it’s really up to me to tell someone to actually retire,” said O’Neill. “There’s two things: Players either retire themselves or by not maybe being picked. They might find if they are not a regular member of the side that they think about it. But I’ve not had this discussion with Glenn and Glenn has certainly not had that discussion with me in the sense of calling me. John was the one who wanted to do it and I thought, with the send-off, that he deserves it with over 100 caps and the career he’s had.”
But for O’Neill, who for the third time this week will watch the Irish U17s in action when they play Bosnia in their European Championship showdown at St George’s Park today, it’s the on-going search for new talent which now takes precedence.
“Isn’t it the whole idea of football for younger players to come through and take the place of the older players, so much so the older players see no future for themselves?” he asked rhetorically. “That’s the way I would look at it.”
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