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McClean likes away days

Kenny could recall veteran for crunch tie

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WHOLE-HEARTED: James McClean in action for the Republic of Ireland

WHOLE-HEARTED: James McClean in action for the Republic of Ireland

WHOLE-HEARTED: James McClean in action for the Republic of Ireland

For three years now, three different Ireland managers have looked for, but not found, what was needed on foreign fields.

Since a 1-0 win in Wales in the World Cup qualifiers in 2017, the Republic have played eight competitive away games with just one win, 1-0 in Gibraltar, which was so poor it barely merits a mention.

Martin O'Neill, Mick McCarthy and now Stephen Kenny have all faced the same problem but failed to find the answer.

But has the solution been there, right under their noses, all the time? If Kenny wants his players to put up their hand and make a stand in Bratislava, could James McClean be the one he turns to after being sidelined for the first two games of the Kenny era?

Deep

Gibraltar aside, Ireland have had just three competitive away wins since Euro 2016 and McClean has scored in all three (Wales, Austria and Moldova). So could Ireland's lion in Vienna dig deep to repeat that feat across the border in Slovakia?

It's a big call for Kenny. Thursday's game is one that straddles two worlds, the short-term gain of trying to get to the Euros and the long-term plan of adding fresh blood to an Ireland squad which has been ageing before our eyes for the last four years.

Would it benefit Irish football in the long term to give another chance in Slovakia to Jayson Molumby, give him the sort of experience vital to progress an international career?

Or is it more sensible to ask McClean, who will turn 32 before the Euro finals take place, if he can somehow summon up another big night along the lines of Cardiff and Viennna?

Last month, after the draw in Bulgaria, Richard Dunne in his Herald column made a case for McClean's return. But there was a caveat, Dunne stating that while we know what McClean can offer the Ireland team, we don't know if he can contribute to a Stephen Kenny Ireland side.

"Stephen's game plan is to move the ball around, it's not 100 miles an hour, which is often the kind of game that suits James with Ireland," Dunne said.

There's more to McClean than blood and thunder but his presence would offer more bite to an Irish midfield which stood off for long spells against Bulgaria and Finland.

Unusually for Ireland, the side had possession for long spells in both games, but Slovakia on Thursday could be a repeat of more recent affairs where the opposition control the ball for longer, and simply getting the ball is a task for Ireland, a task that McClean fulfils when asked.

Kenny spoke this week of the different options his midfielders offer.

"Conor [Hourihane] is better with the game in front of him where he has a range of passes and can play whereas Robbie [Brady] is better as a dynamic player, linking up play and trying to join in," Kenny said.

But how can Brady link up the play when Slovakia own the ball in midfield?

As he scours the 15 attacking players in the Ireland squad (and McClean was listed as a striker in the FAI's press release announcing the squad), Kenny can opt for Premier League players (Jeff Hendrick, James McCarthy, Robbie Brady, Callum Robinson, Aaron Connolly, David McGoldrick, Shane Long) or youth (Alan Browne, Jayson Molumby, Jack Byrne, Callum O'Dowda, Adam Idah).

McClean is has neither youth nor Premier League football on his side but he will at least be in Kenny's thoughts as the Ireland coach mulls over what went wrong, as well as right, in his first two matches, where McClean was mostly a spectator.

McClean was clearly a frustrated figure with Ireland, and how Ireland treated him, in the past.

He labelled the entire Euro 2012 episode as a "shambles" and said he was "a bit insulted" to only get 15 minutes of action there, against Spain when the side were already 3-0 down.

The sour feeling he had in Poland carried on, McClean unhappy at being left on the bench for the first competitive game after the Euros, a poor 2-1 win in Kazakhstan after which he reached for Twitter ("#fuming #f**kinjoke #embarrassing"), a comment he soon deleted and apologised for.

Maybe he's just older and wiser now, or maybe he thinks for longer before reaching for the tweeting machine, but there was no outburst from McClean when he was left on the bench for all of the game in Bulgaria and was only granted a few minutes as sub in the loss to Finland.

It probably didn't help his cause that he was out of the picture at club level around that time.

McClean was voted player of the year by the Stoke City fans last season but wasn't involved in their first two league games of this season, sparking rumours of a move to Celtic.

Kenny explained this week that a hand injury had held McClean back, but he has since featured for Stoke, albeit as a wing back.

Whatever about his role at Stoke, McClean won't play in defence this week, and with the fresh legs of Connolly, Idah and Robinson available to be added to the experience of McGoldrick (who looks certain to start), McClean's days of playing in a front three are long gone.

But as a steely option as part of a three-man midfield, he could offer a revival.

"James has been a great servant for Ireland, very consistent in his career. I know how much he loves playing for his country, of course, and so does everyone else," Kenny said earlier this week.

"You pick the team that you think is right, the balance, the potency, so you've enough possibility to score goals, that's most important.

"I pick the team I think is right, the balance of the team and James is a serious option of course."

Two away games can take Ireland to the Euros: this week it's up to McClean to show that his great away days are not in the past.