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Wednesday 23 August 2017

Walters rests while O'Neill frets over strikers

Ireland boss Martin O’Neill watches training. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland boss Martin O’Neill watches training. Photo: Sportsfile

It took a while to figure out that Jon Walters wasn't on the pitch when Martin O'Neill and his players went through their training routine for hundreds of madly-excited kids at the Aviva.

Open day for the Ireland team has always been a big success and this was no exception but amidst the smiles and autograph signing, there was serious business to do.

But with no fewer than 28 players on the pitch and music pumping through the sound system, it was hard to focus on the orange and blue bibs.

This wasn't an average day out for the Ireland team and Walters' absence made it a worrying one for everyone.

Officially, he was listed as "resting" and if that's what he's doing since Sunday evening's excellent work against Uruguay, we will all breathe a sigh of relief.

Ireland players Darren Randolph and Harry Arter sign autographs for fans after training at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland players Darren Randolph and Harry Arter sign autographs for fans after training at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

It wouldn't be the first time that Walters has spent time in the gym while his squad mates train.

Those who were in the Ireland training camp in Versailles will remember Walters peeling off from the team bus every day in the run-up to the Euro 2016 finals opener against Sweden in Paris to continue rehab on a damaged Achilles.

Hopefully, O'Neill is exercising caution by keeping Walters in cotton wool for the next few days but if there is something wrong and his availability for Sunday's World Cup Group D encounter with Austria is in jeopardy, O'Neill really does have a problem.

Daryl Murphy is the only other serious option O'Neill can turn to following David McGoldrick's withdrawal and he has been battling a calf injury since October, the same knock which ruled him out of the 0-0 draw with Wales in March.

He laid on a fine through ball for James McClean's pile driver against Uruguay after he came on as a second-half substitute and Roy Keane, for one, would have no worries about Murphy slotting in.

"You look at our results when Murph has played, they have been pretty decent if you analyse it," said Keane last week.

Apart from the instantly forgettable Euro 2016 warm-up against Belarus which Ireland lost 2-1 in Turner's Cross this time last year, Keane has a point.

In fact, the only other game Ireland have lost in O'Neill's time which Murphy has had an involvement in was the Round of 16 clash with France in Lyon.

He was there for the big 1-0 win over Germany in Euro 2016 qualifying and again in both play-off games against Bosnia.

Murphy started against Italy in Lille and his lucky charm presence continued when he came off the bench to score and secure what could yet be the most important point in the campaign against Serbia in Belgrade.

Fortunately, Marcel Koller is also dealing with serious problems with his attacking options and after Marc Janko withdrew yesterday with tonsillitis, he was left with bare bones.

Koller has lost seven players since he named his squad - Janko, Marko Arnautovic and Stefan Ilsanker (suspended), goalkeepers Robert Almer (cruciate) and Andreas Lukse (calf strain), and Schalke midfielder Alessandro Schoepf (knee)

Graz forward Deni Alar is in to replace Janko but he has yet to score an international goal, a complaint shared by Guido Bugstaller and Michael Gregoritsch.

That's the good news in an immediate sense but O'Neill knows that over the long haul, he must find some new options up front.

The hope that Murphy's promotion with Newcastle would expose him to a Premier League football at the perfect time to play a big part in the final and decisive games of the World Cup campaign now looks forlorn.

Reports yesterday suggest that Murphy will be jettisoned by Rafa Benitez and is facing a return to the Championship.

Walters has a year left on his Stoke contract which would take him nicely up to the World Cup finals but after that, O'Neill or his successor will have to find a replacement.

Neither O'Neill or Keane seem convinced about Cork City's Preston-bound prospect Sean Maguire although his form at the moment is such that it is not easy to understand why he hasn't been involved.

If O'Neill had a bigger list of options, perhaps Maguire's potential could be ignored and it is odd that he hasn't been given at least a taste of senior squad life.

Cillian Sheridan scored another brace for Jagiellonia Bialystok a week ago but O'Neill remains unmoved about his claims for a call-up.

Life after Robbie Keane is proving very tricky indeed for O'Neill who had designs on Scott Hogan but that trail seems to have gone cold.

On Sunday during the half-time break, Keane was on the stadium screens talking about his career in the past tense.

Ireland could do with him now, even on one leg.

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