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Monday 24 July 2017

Signs of hope in O'Neill talent search

Brentford’s highly rated Scott Hogan has yet to make his intentions known to Martin O’Neill.
Brentford’s highly rated Scott Hogan has yet to make his intentions known to Martin O’Neill.

Martin O'Neill has twice mentioned that his heart's desire for 2017 is some success in his hunt to find the missing ingredient. He needs a player who brings goals to the table.

It wasn't clear from the way he was talking what he had in mind or where this mystery man might spring from.

But it was very obvious that he is in no way fussy about the nature of the player, be it a fairly typical striker like Lukas Jutkiewicz, a no frills centre-forward or a talented two-footer like Scott Hogan or something else entirely, an x-factor contributor like Jack Grealish.

O'Neill must quietly regret Grealish's stupidity.

Had he chosen Ireland, he might have been a star in Euro 2016, the touchstone for a team which, as O'Neill's search highlights, is short on show-stoppers, lads who can knock one in from 30 yards when you badly need it.

It was odd that O'Neill should repeat his wish more than once in a spate of pre-Christmas interviews.

He sounded more like a club manager with a few quid in his pocket pondering the imminent January transfer market than an international coach restricted by passports.

He may have been thinking of Hogan when he brought the subject up and perhaps dangling a carrot.

Robbie Brady is box office and Seamus Coleman rapidly risin g to become a leader of real significance but the spot vacated by Robbie Keane when he retired as the go-to man when heroics in front of goal were required has not been filled.

There is no indication about any meeting between O'Neill and Hogan or his agent although the Ireland manager did assure everyone that he was dealing with it.

Similar to the Grealish case, O'Neill has not pursued Hogan but chosen to let the matter rest with the player. If he wants to play he will say so and it is hard to argue with that.

There are some who still claim that Grealish could have been secured had O'Neill done more but there is no evidence to support this.

Entirely the opposite when you view the flakiness of the player and his career since he made his England declaration.

He's only now beginning to play like he can and has a distance to go before he can shake off his unprofessional reputation.

Grealish would have been like a firecracker with a dodgy fuse had he been strapped onto what O'Neill knew was a tight and united group.

So we wait for Hogan and wonder whether this talented 24-year-old is any better than what's already there.

But there are reasons to think that O'Neill might just find what he's seeking outside the traditional goal sources.

Important

It's a long time since Ireland could boast of central midfielders with the happy knack of scoring important goals but it used to be a strength.

The eight midfielders who travelled to France had accumulated well over 300 caps at that point and shared just 18 international goals.

That's a very poor total and underlines again, if it could possibly be needed, just how important Robbie Keane was to Ireland during his career.

It certainly will not sustain a successful qualification campaign and yet in the tournament proper in Paris, Lille and Lyon, it was all about midfield.

Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan maintained a tradition set by men like Ronnie Whelan, Kevin Sheedy, John Sheridan and of course, Ray Houghton.

When goals were needed in the biggest games, midfield delivered and in the last six months, James McClean and Jeff Hendrick have stepped up.

There is further hope on the horizon. In fact, there's a bit of giddiness creeping into the season and there's a growing feeling that the year ahead could be as positive as the one we've just left behind.

Start with Aiden McGeady. He's absolutely flying for Preston and while everyone waited for a glimpse of Daryl Horgan in the FA Cup tie against Arsenal, it was his performance which really caught the eye.

He's fit, he's sharp, he's playing football every week and O'Neill loves him. It's getting crowded in Ireland's midfield.

That's the task facing Horgan. He will have to be very good indeed to leap-frog the men already standing in line in O'Neill squad.

First he must complete the switch to Championship football and whatever adaptation is needed, but for ten minutes against the Gunners, he made Simon Grayson wish he'd used him earlier.

It was only a cameo and he's a wild card in O'Neill's talent hunt.

But Horgan looks like a man on the kind of curve which could bring him to the Premier League.

There's more. Conor Hourihane is surely heading for the top flight. He's surrounded by goals.

He scores them, usually spectacularly or from the penalty spot, he makes them and he's the Barnsley captain.

Have a sneaky bet on him to win a competitive cap before 2017 bites the dust

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