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Sunday 22 October 2017

No fringe benefits for O'Neill from friendlies

Republic of Ireland midfielder James McCarthy in action for Everton Photo: Reuters
Republic of Ireland midfielder James McCarthy in action for Everton Photo: Reuters

Martin O'Neill probably knew before the game against Switzerland even started that he wouldn't get much from it. Apart from a decent enough performance from Shane Duffy, that's how it worked out.

For the next one against Slovakia, I would expect to see more of the players who will be starting against Sweden in France in June on the pitch.

Put bluntly, the fringe players and young lads I was getting mildly excited about in the run-up to these two games didn't deliver anything to impact on the selection process for the final 23.

I'm not sure there's any point in trying again against Slovakia and I think O'Neill would be better served giving his first-pick men more time together on the pitch.

I understand that a good chunk of his team is missing but it can never hurt for players to play together and it's not as if his first choice 11, whatever that might be, was even close to the finished article in the first place.

For that reason, it was very telling and encouraging to see how big an impact James McCarthy made when he came on later in the game.

Suddenly there was a player in green who wanted the ball in midfield and didn't seem like was under pressure.

He was keen to get ahead of the ball too and made one or two very promising runs which nobody else did all night.

David Meyler and Stephen Quinn just couldn't get to grips with the Swiss midfield or the game.

Disrupt

Ireland set-up to disrupt and chase the Swiss midfield, which points to a bigger issue with the way the team played for a lot of the qualifying series - one which hasn't gone away.

So if there is a positive to take out of the game, it was McCarthy.

For a long time, almost everyone has wondered when he will step into his skin properly and become the midfielder his talent suggests. I just wonder has he turned a corner.

I know this was just a snapshot but he brought a presence when he came on the pitch and I think everyone in the ground felt that.

That's exactly what we've been looking for from him and maybe this was a sign that he is getting there, slowly but surely.

I hope so, because Ireland can't play like they did against Switzerland and hope to qualify from the group in France.

I know it was only a friendly, and a poor one at that, but I've seen the same pattern throughout the last few years.

The optimism I felt before the game was, I think, shared by many. It's a long time since an Ireland manager had the chance or inclination to try so many new or fringe players at the same time.

There is always the hope that someone who hasn't quite shone in a lower league club might click and put on a show.

A lot was made of Jack Byrne in the run-in but he was sent back to the Under 21s and obviously hasn't convinced either O'Neill or Roy Keane that he is ready yet.

O'Neill got himself into some bother in the early part of his time in the job when he pointed out that he couldn't see the layer of young hopefuls on the way up which he expected to see. But he was only telling the truth.

It was depressing to see that only a handful of Irish-born players were in the Under 21 team that lost to Italy on Thursday and that has to be a huge concern over the long term.

Traditionally, Ireland would be lucky if one or two from the under-age set-up actually make it all the way and maybe Byrne will eventually emerge fully, as Duffy appears ready to do.

Duffy's problem in terms of France is that O'Neill already has John O'Shea, Richard Keogh, Ciarán Clarke and Marc Wilson to cover the centre-back slots.

Clark and Wilson can also do a job at left-full and even in midfield at a push, which would seem to leave Duffy in competition with Cyrus Christie, the obvious alternative to Seamus Coleman.

My instinct tells me he will bring Christie, leaving Duffy to look forward to the Russia 2018 qualifying series, which kicks off in the autumn.

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