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Martin O'Neill with coach Steve Guppy. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Martin O'Neill with coach Steve Guppy. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Martin O'Neill with coach Steve Guppy. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

MARTIN O’Neill will never allow himself to offer a hostage to fortune given the fact that the first blows in the Euro 2016 qualifying series are still more than three months away with four friendlies to play.

But there is something odd about his response to Richard Dunne and the probability that when the Premier League lumbers into life for a new season, Ireland’s best defender over the last decade will still be O’Neill’s best option for one of the two centre-half slots.

For some reason, O’Neill doesn’t fancy Dunne; at least that’s the impression he gives every time he’s asked about him.

Or maybe it’s just that he believes that Dunne’s time has passed. Either way, he found it very hard raise a cheer for the Dubliner’s epic performance for QPR against Derby at Wembley.

Asked whether there has been a better Irish defender playing in the position in England or anywhere else this season, O’Neill came up with Marc Wilson, pressed into service by Mark Hughes at Stoke because of a long term injury to Robert Huth as an emergency centre-back and still in the position when the curtain closed on the Premier League three weeks ago.

Wilson has played there a couple of dozen times this season and according to O’Neill, did well enough to allow him to think that he will be a significant option as a partner for John O’Shea in the Euro 2016 qualifying series.

O’Neill likes Wilson, that is very obvious. He gave him midfield responsibility against Turkey alongside Glenn Whelan and his versatility will undoubtedly earn him a lot of caps in the coming years.

He emerged late in Giovanni Trapattoni’s time and stepped into the left-full position previously occupied by Stephen Ward. It seemed as if the torch had passed and Wilson looked the part.

He’s a lovely footballer with a great physical presence and it’s easy to see why O’Neill has focused particularly on him in the last six months.

But anyone who watched Dunne at Wembley on Saturday couldn’t help thinking that in an ideal world, both should be accommodated in an Ireland team.

The suggestion that Dunne’s age could tell against him in the Premier League where he will face much more mobile and tricky attacking players than he had to deal with during this promotion season produced a nod from O’Neill which, coming shortly after he all but nominated Wilson as his Irish defender of the year, gave a very clear indication of his thinking.

To be fair to O’Neill, he dismissed the suggestion that he might be a tad peeved by the fact that Dunne announced his absence from the Ireland summer fixture list in the media.

Dunne was quick to announce after the play-off final win that he would love to be involved come September and made no apology for his decision to pack himself and family off to the beach

Maybe once O’Neill might have been disgruntled by that but he is too long in the game to choose petulance over pragmatism and said as much after the Turkey defeat.

James McCarthy is also relevant in this. If you read the Liverpool Echo last week, Roberto Martinez made representations through Everton to the FAI and O’Neill to ask for time off for young midfielder although the official line was that he had an ankle injury.

The Merseyside newspaper interpreted his withdrawal from the squad as confirmation that Everton’s pleas to O’Neill had been heard.

It might also be observed that if the door remains open for Stephen Ireland who has done absolutely nothing for his country on a football field, surely Dunne rates something a bit more definitive.

There is, of course, the possibility that O’Neill and Roy Keane have seen something in Dunne which gives them cause for concern.

Their practised eyes will have watched Dunne in the flesh more than once this season and perhaps they saw signs that while he remains a class above the Championship, the days when he could do it better than most on the international stage are gone.

Time will tell. Ireland could have done with him against Turkey. Damien Delaney had a game to forget and Wilson was employed elsewhere, though it must be said, hardly gainfully.

Turkey gave us a view of the way O’Neil wants to play at home and it does look like Wes Hoolahan can expect something tangible from this coming qualification campaign.

Aiden McGeady and James Clean too can look forward to competitive caps and the other certain starters would appear to be Wilson, James McCarthy, Robbie Keane, David Forde, Seamus Coleman and John O’Shea.

If Dunne returns and O’Neill can trust him, Wilson will move to left-full and then it’s down to one place to fill in central midfield.

Standing in that queue are Glenn Whelan, David Meyler, Jeff Hendrick, Paul Green and depending on the circumstances, Wilson too and it is here where we will see some real competition in the remaining three games against Italy, Costa Rica and Portugal.


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