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Sunday 17 December 2017

O'Neill admits he may need a young gun to step up

Martin O'Neill
Martin O'Neill

The last time an Ireland manager gave a player his full international debut in a competitive game, it didn't go all that well.

Anthony Pilkington came in for his first cap in a home World Cup qualifier (against Sweden), Ireland would lose that game and also lose the second match of that double-header, that outcome ending Giovanni Trapattoni's time as Republic of Ireland manager.

The case is relevant as now, like then, the stakes are high for the Ireland side at the tail end of a once-promising but ultimately disappointing World Cup campaign.

And relevant because the current boss, desperate for two wins to keep the World Cup show on the road, may well turn to an uncapped player to come in and try to make a big statement on the international stage, with Championship forwards Scott Hogan (Aston Villa), Sean Maguire (Preston) and Aiden O'Brien (Millwall) all named in the 32-man squad for the must-win games against Moldova and Wales.

Presence

For the FAI, Hogan's presence in the panel is the culmination of a chase that began four years ago, when he was a free-scoring forward with fourth-tier side Rochdale, where an attempt to call in Hogan for an U21 international ended in disappointment.

It's taken a lot of meetings with intermediaries, phone calls and paperwork to get the 25-year-old to this stage.

With Jon Walters absent - O'Neill confirmed yesterday that the Burnley player's knee injury would keep him out of the November play-offs, should Ireland qualify, as well as the Moldova/Wales ties - options up front are limited.

And with a win at home to Moldova a necessity, Irish confidence is not helped by a goal drought for our main striker (22 games without a goal for club or country for Shane Long).

O'Neill says it would be a leap for Hogan or Maguire to come in and play, possibly even start, against Moldova on Friday week (though Maguire could have, and should have, a few caps under his belt by now had the Ireland manager not remained so stubborn in the face of calls for his promotion for the three-game series of matches in June and last month's double-header, when a shot-shy Ireland were crying out for a confident, on-form centre forward).

"It's a big ask for players to step in for their first game in such an an important match but it might be the case of one having to do that," said O'Neill.

"Asking someone to step in and make that big step-up - it is a big step-up.

"In terms of Scott being available that's something, at least if not for the immediate game, certainly for the future. But, to me, it might be the case of needs must. We'll see. Young Maguire, he's playing, he's doing pretty well.

"It's a tough ask for players to come in to a game of this magnitude and perform but, as I said, needs must, I'll have a look."

The Ireland boss has limited options for Moldova: James McClean and Robbie Brady are suspended, Jon Walters and Seamus Coleman are injured and James McCarthy, despite being named in the squad, is not expected to be fit while Harry Arter and Wes Hoolahan are carrying knocks (but should be available).

That's why it could be the "needs must" scenario O'Neill outlined above, though there is good news in the form of Jeff Hendrick's return from injury and some good form with Leeds from Eunan O'Kane.

Difficult

There could also be a boost pre-Cardiff, should Wales drop points in Tbilisi. "Wales still have to win their last two games and I think the game in Georgia will be difficult for them," said O'Neill.

"But it doesn't concern me because we have to win our two matches. And I can't even think about the second game. We have to beat Moldova. That will be a tough evening for us, just to make sure that we win that game and I think that the Wales game will look after itself."

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