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Friday 18 August 2017

Cagey O'Neill keeping options open

Randolph edges ahead in race to start Euros as Ireland's No. 1 'keeper but nothing decided

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill during a press conference at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown. Photo: Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill during a press conference at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown. Photo: Sportsfile

Martin O'Neill wouldn't do well as a team leader on The Voice. If you stuck three people in front of him and asked him to pick one, you'd need a very long ad break.

Poor Kathryn Thomas would have to shout even louder than she usually does to fill the echoing silence which would replace the moment of tension beloved of television directors but now stretching into eternity.

To stick with the theme, we placed Darron Randolph, Rob Elliott and Shay Given in front of him in a dive off and asked him which one is going to be Ireland's No. 1 netminder at the live finals. To say he kicked for touch doesn't do the reality justice.

He smiled a hooded smile and told us nothing. Zilch. Nada. The weeks ahead to the first game against Sweden are gaping like a bottomless chasm.

What he did say about the Ireland goalkeeping position is that Randolph has done very, very well. Very, very well and Elliott is playing every week for Newcastle which is good but he doesn't have international experience which is not..

Hint

These are things we knew already but if there was a hint of favouritism, perhaps, came in the way O'Neill spoke about Randolph's calmness under ferocious pressure when he came off the bench to replace the stricken Given against the Germans.

"Darren Randolph has done very, very well and he went into that game against Germany off the bench. He may not have thought he was the first one (substitute) in but he steps in, puts the gloves on and deals with the whole situation brilliantly and has done very well since," said O'Neill.

"Is it an advantage for Robbie Elliott to be playing every single week? I would have to say yes. Of course that's an advantage. Every week you're playing competitively, all those things definitely count and they do help.

"But I don't think Darren Randolph would want to give it away lightly," he said and there it was, a hint that the West Ham goalkeeper could be the man in possession. We are living off small crumbs here.

O'Neill also pointed out that West Ham's continuing involvement in the FA Cup could throw up a nice bonus.

"I'm not back to picking West Ham's team for them, but the manager has stuck with him in the FA Cup matches and there's a possibility, albeit a tough game against Manchester United, that they could be in the semi-final and get to the final," he said.

"West Ham could be playing in a match a couple of days before we play Holland, so that is possible."

O'Neill's response to a specific question asking whether Randolph is his No. 1 was not just guarded but surrounded in barbed wire: "I think he has done very well, very well."

Is that a yes or a maybe?

"He has done very, very well."

He said that with a smile which an unfortunate chicken might see just before a fox makes him squawk.

We know that O'Neill is just as inscrutable with his players and likes to leave them guessing, sometimes right up to the inhalation of the referee's breath before the kick-off peep.

Shay Given's name was tossed onto the table without much hope of a response.

Is the door closing on Shay?

"I couldn't do, I really couldn't do that."

That would have nicely packed the three goalkeeping spots away until May 31 when the full 23 man-list must be handed into UEFA but then someone mentioned Keiren Westwood.

"I know what Keiren can do, I've had him before at club level and I just thought it would be a little boost for David Forde coming into the squad who has, with respect, never let me down in the time I've been here and done well.

"A boost of confidence for him because who knows what might develop. I think you can't not but like Fordey - not because he should be in the squad because you like him - but he's done very well for me here and I keep going back to the save he made v Germany who could have gone 2-0 up and we might not have had that equaliser."

Westwood is still in the mix by virtue of regular football at the sharp end of the Championship with Sheffield Wednesday and so too is David Forde although it must be said, he is the same boat as Given and has played virtually no competitive football all season.

So there you have it. Anyone who started the day with Randolph, Elliott and Given neatly boxed away as the last line of resistance for Ireland during Euro 2016 must think again.

It will be the same for every position. O'Neill might just evaporate in a cloud of indecision when the day arrives to hand in his squad.

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