Opinion

If things had gone to plan, Martin O’Neill would now be about to finalise his 23-man squad to take to Russia for Ireland’s fourth appearance at a World Cup. Alas, Christian Eriksen and Denmark ensured that the Boys in Green will instead have to wait until September to play a competitive match, by which stage almost 10 months will have passed since the Danes inflicted that 5-1 thrashing at the Aviva Stadium. If there is a positive aspect to missing out on the World Cup, it’s that the manager has the perfect opportunity to assess the playing options available to him in a non-competitive environment ahead of the serious business later in the year.

Ireland have only played once match since the World Cup play-off defeat, a tame 1-0 friendly defeat in Turkey in March, but they will have two games over the next week to potentially hand out new caps and give inexperienced players a chance to bed into the squad ahead of possibly becoming key figures in the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign. On Monday, they take on Russia-bound France in Paris before returning to Dublin next Saturday for a friendly against the United States, who like the Irish will have to watch the World Cup from afar. Here, we look at some of the standout talking points ahead of the double header.

Contrasting tests

Ireland have not faced genuine high-calibre international opposition since, well, the last time they played France. That was two years ago in the second round of Euro 2016 when the Irish led for more than half the game before a quickfire double from Antoine Griezmann took the tournament hosts into the quarter-finals. Therefore, O’Neill’s men will have an overdue opportunity to test themselves against elite opponents, having avoided the continent’s big hitters in World Cup qualifying. Les Bleus go to Russia as one of the tournament favourites and have a formidable collection of forwards including Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, Kylian Mbappe and Nabil Fekir. Ireland’s defence will have their hands full trying to keep that lot quiet.

Five days later, they come up against opponents on a more even keel when hosting the USA in Dublin. Ireland ran out 4-1 winners over the Americans in the teams’ last meeting in November 2014 and the visitors remain in a state of shock after failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Indeed, Team USA remain without a full-time manager, with Bruce Arena yet to be replaced permanently six months on from the World Cup qualifying debacle. They, too, could be looking to take a look at younger or less regular players.

One last ole for O’Shea

The game against USA will be noteworthy for being John O’Shea’s last outing in a green shirt, nearly 17 years after the former Manchester United defender made his debut against Croatia at the old Lansdowne Road stadium. The Sunderland veteran has been pilloried in previous years for some poor performances and he looked like player in the twilight of his career at Euro 2016, but he has been a magnificent servant of the Irish jersey since 2001, racking up more than 100 caps and being the last player from the Republic to represent one of the Premier League’s big hitters.

O’Shea is the last of the early 21st century generation to call it a day, following on from Roy Keane, Steve Finnan, Damien Duff, Richard Dunne and Shay Given from the Mick McCarthy days. He has been there on great days such as their appearances at two European Championships, along with the hard times like the infamous last-gasp win in San Marino in 2007 and the Cyprus thrashing a few months before then. Ask almost any Irish football fan for their views on O’Shea and they will speak in very respectful and appreciative tones about a player whose contribution to the green shirt will be difficult to emulate.

Overdue domestic recognition

Joe Gamble was the last player from the League of Ireland to represent the Irish national team and that was 11 years ago on an end-of-season tour to the USA. Other domestic-based players have been called into squads since then, some of them by O’Neill – Dundalk trio Gary Rogers, Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan in 2016. However, the upcoming friendlies represent the best chance in a long while that a League of Ireland player could win an official Ireland cap.

Shamrock Rovers striker Graham Burke played for an Ireland XI against Celtic last Sunday in Scott Brown’s testimonial, although that match is not considered an official fixture, hence he remains uncapped. With forward options limited, though, Burke stands a very good chance of featuring in Paris or Dublin this week. Meanwhile, a very interesting story could develop if goalkeeper Shane Supple is given a run. The Bohemians netminder was previously with Ipswich but left professional football in 2009. Six years later, he returned to the game at amateur levels in Ireland before signing for Bohs, where he has excelled in a largely inexperienced team. It would be fantastic to see even one of the domestic-based players winning a cap in the coming days.

Potential for plenty of debuts

It isn’t just the Ireland-based duo mentioned above who could be awarded their international debuts against France or USA. Several new faces featured in the Scott Brown testimonial in Glasgow, including Callum Robinson, Darragh Lenihan, Derrick Williams, Shaun Williams, Enda Stevens and Conor O’Malley. Most of those are likely to be given their first official caps over the coming week and strong performances might see them work their way into the reckoning for O’Neill’s squads in autumn when the competitive games come around.

Can new talismans stick their hands up?

O’Shea isn’t the only seasoned Irish player whose international involvement will have ended before Euro 2020. Wes Hoolahan and Daryl Murphy both retired over the winter, while Jon Walters’ career is very much in its twilight and Shane Long is approaching veteran status. That could leave Ireland very short on attacking options worryingly soon, but there is hope that Preston hitman Sean Maguire will blossom into the team’s go-to source for goals. The Kilkenny native has has an impressive season at Deepdale, although he struggled as the lone frontman in Ireland’s defeat in Turkey earlier in the year.

Off the back of an impressive season with Brighton, Shane Duffy is at the stage where he looks well set to become a genuine stalwart of the Irish team. Now 26, he has ample experience under his belt while still being young enough to contribute plenty to the Irish cause in the next few years. Also, a fine season at Premier League level means he will go into the France and USA games full of confidence and he is likely to become a leader of the Irish setup before long.