herald

Friday 9 December 2016

relegation strugglers in a season of gloom

IT has become a cliché at this point in a Premier League season to observe with concern that a significant chunk of Ireland's Premier League talent is loitering in the transit lounge and already thinking about a dogged Championship promotion battle next season.

It is even worse when we lose one to retirement. Stephen Reid has hung up the boots and part from the ball of regret which sticks in the stomach any time he is mentioned, he is another Irish Premier League footballer who won't be playing at that level next season.

We don't have enough left not to feel a pang when that happens and in Reid's case, it is particularly sad.

Only Shane Long, James McCarthy, Aiden McGeady and Seamus Coleman were operating throughout the season in an environment lacking the raw edge of a relegation struggle.

Stoke City's Irish group flirted with the wrong end of the table before digging themselves into their customary mid-table slot but Glenn Whelan and Jon Walters are on the wrong side of the performance curve age wise and only Marc Wilson will be around for the draw for Euro 2020.

The long decline in talent is real and the reason Ireland's best play relegation football is simple. They are not good enough.

Mick McCarthy's attempt to bring a few more from the Championship into an instant relegation battle in the Premier League next season failed at the weekend and that only added to the sense of foreboding in the air about the way ahead.

Scotland is looming large now and while there are some hopeful signs from Long and Everton contingent, nobody believes that the three points Ireland need will be won from Gordon Strachan with anything less than a dogfight.

The question mark for most Ireland supporters revolves around the issue highlighted by the concentration of Irishmen in Hull's season long battle with the drop mentioned above and Martin O'Neill.

The Jack Grealish situation has only served to add further doubt about the senior manager and his assistant's judgement, although Keane came up smelling of roses at the weekend.

Kevin Grealish's comments were black and white. There was no deal done and everything O'Neill heard when he put in a call on the morning of the squad announcement he knew already.

In the absence of any rebuttal from the FAI or O'Neill, we can only assume that something got lost in translation and that O'Neill's strategy was to name him in the squad and sit back.

It's hard to argue if that was the case. The damage was done a year previously when O'Neill chose to leave Grealish behind when the squad flew to New York.

What was very interesting about Grealish Snr's words was the absolution of Keane of any guilt.

It didn't matter that O'Neill's No. 2 had a public go at the father of an undecided, dual-qualified, bright young thing because Keane is Jack's hero. That is a great relief and after a long spell when Keane's thunderous frown was all we saw, he's had some much kinder publicity in recent times and looks less volatile.

Keane was spotted taking the air in Cork recently with none other than Denis Irwin and conspiracy theorists immediately had him tagged to his former Old Trafford skipper as Ireland No. 2 when O'Neill quits to join Fulham.

It is already a bit of a reach to imagine Keane as the Ireland boss but it is much easier to think of O'Neill riding off to the Premier League or even the Championship in July.

Several clubs will be watching Ireland's game against Scotland very closely indeed as will the aforementioned Mick McCarthy who still has a thirst to go back to the well which almost poisoned him.

He turned a sow's ear into something approximating a silk purse with Ipswich this season and fell a stitch or two short but it was a worthy effort and he has reason to hold his head high.

McCarthy to Fulham is a more realistic prospect than O'Neill ending up at Craven Cottage in an immediate sense but give it six weeks and who knows, they might meet each other going in opposite directions in Dublin Airport.

IRELAND

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