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Sunday 19 August 2018

Evolution not revolution for Martin

Rice potential offers spice to Turkish test

Hammer time: Declan Rice is pictured in training yesterday ahead of this evening’s friendly with Turkey
Hammer time: Declan Rice is pictured in training yesterday ahead of this evening’s friendly with Turkey

The singers may change, but the song remains the same.

Ireland's friendly in Turkey this evening will see some new chapters written.

Declan Rice should make his senior international debut, players like Colin Doyle, Alan Browne, Sean Maguire and Alan Judge will be able to say, from on, that they are no longer one-cap-wonders, Scott Hogan will finally get capped.

Rice (19) will be a very rare case, for Irish football, of teenage kicks being so hard to beat.

Not since James McCarthy and Greg Cunningham both came through to the senior team under Giovanni Trapattoni, way back in 2010, has a player made his senior Ireland debut while a teenager. No country for young men indeed.

Ireland boss Martin O’Neill
Ireland boss Martin O’Neill

So is this a new broom sweeping Irish football clean?

Not really. And Martin O'Neill made it clear when speaking before this game that, despite the pain still suffered by the heavy loss to Denmark four months ago, there's not a long wrong with this team, this squad and the job of work he is doing.

Seamus Coleman's return will add steel to the back line, Shane Duffy has come on hugely in the last 12 months, Sean Maguire and Scott Hogan offer a hope, at least, of goals, and players like Alan Judge, Conor Hourihane and Alan Browne can possibly add something in terms of the creativity that's been so lacking.

But there's no revolution at the heart of this Irish team, nor was one expected.

In O'Neill's mind, it's factors beyond his control (Seamus Coleman's injury, James McClean missing a chance at home to Denmark, before the Danes took a grip on the game) which stopped Ireland from going to the World Cup and it's the lack of a natural, prolific goalscorer which means that Robbie Keane will always be missed.

"I think it almost goes without saying that we missed him," he says of Coleman. "Had he been fit, I think we may have made it, who knows. He would have given us a much better opportunity." O'Neill may try new players, he may even try out (briefly) a new formation, like a three-man defence with wing backs, but the basic approach will remain the same.

"The truth of it here, and you can talk about it until you're blue in the face, is if James McClean's shot was inside the post and not outside, to make it 2-0, we'd win the game and we'd be Russia," he says.

"And we might be in Russia because of our away record. We beat Wales when we had to, and we ended up finishing second in the group. We weren't beaten away from home.

"That's something in itself as winning games away from home is very difficult. We had problems, obviously, at the Aviva, which wouldn't be the norm.

"We didn't concede too many goals, we were pretty strong. We have to be because we're not ripping teams apart. That's not just a problem from my time.

"Robbie Keane, who'd scored lots of goals, was coming to the wrong end of things. So we had to try and win games. I don't think we have to be radical about everything we do. There's a lot of things we did right. I wouldn't be changing them.

"You analyse things at the end of the campaign. And you think, could you have done this, or done that but I wouldn't have said that 'developing' a new system during the course of the campaign which was actually working not too badly, would have been the reason for it."

O'Neill sees enough of the good stuff from the last campaign, and the fact that the sides who oppose Ireland in competitive games in 2018 (Wales and Denmark) are beatable to place confidence in the bank.

Travelled

So why are we in Turkey in March? Well, for some it's a matter of bedding in: he has 25 players in the squad but only 17 can play at some point, so some of those who travelled won't even get to play. What O'Neill is looking for is for someone like Rice to use this game, and subsequent friendlies with France and the USA, to show he can play at this level as well as the Premier League.

Rice plays a lot of his football in defence but the idea of using Rice at the base of his midfield diamond offers a new way of thinking.

Harry Arter has struggled to get to grips with international football, despite his Premier League pedigree, and should Rice take the chance if offered, he could play his way into the XI for the autumn with the puzzlingly off-form Arter sliding down the pecking order.

O'Neill will look to the Turkey game, and a battle with the wily 72-year-old Mirceau Lucescu, for other pointers. And he points to Shane Duffy's progress, from nowhere to centre stage, as a route he needs others to take.

"Duffy has done exceptionally well in the last couple of seasons and particularly I think he could easily have started in the Euros in the game against Sweden," O'Neill says.

"That was a massive leap for him, considering that when I saw him for Yeovil, when he was on loan from Everton, you wouldn't have given him a big chance of playing in those games. He wasn't particularly good but he has become particularly good."

If Rice can adapt to this stage and if Maguire or Hogan can start scoring goals, this will have been a good week for O'Neill, who will sing the same song, just a few words changed.

But, to quote Edwyn Collins, to rip it up and start again? No chance.

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