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Friday 22 June 2018

Walters blow as Martin searches for green shoots

O'Neill keen for fresh faces but striker's injury a setback for old guard

Burnley’s Irish striker Jon Walters has been ruled out for up to eight weeks as he undergoes a knee operation
Burnley’s Irish striker Jon Walters has been ruled out for up to eight weeks as he undergoes a knee operation
Martin O'Neill

News of an injury to a 34-year-old who has played just three games as a sub in the Premier League this season should not cause a stir in the world of international football.

But Martin O'Neill, due to sign his new two-year contract as Ireland manager next Monday, will still be concerned about the fact that Jonathan Walters has gone under the knife and will be out for two months.

The dearth of young Irish talent at Premier League level, bar Declan Rice, is the biggest concern for O'Neill as he plots a route through a 2018 which is anything but "exciting" as claimed by O'Neill's interviewer from the in-house video clip issued on Tuesday night.

And while his employers have claimed that O'Neill wants to bring in new talent in the months ahead, the lack of options means that the fitness of Walters and the apparent return of form of James McCarthy with Everton will be uppermost in his mind.

Strange to say it about a 27-year-old but it's still early days in terms of McCarthy, who has come back from injury to start in three of the last four games for Everton.

At one stage it seemed he would be offloaded as Sam Allardyce clears out some bodies to make way for the likes of Theo Walcott but McCarthy has (for now) won Allardyce's eye.

There's no getting away from the fact that this current Ireland squad is an old one: 11 of the 23-man squad named for the play-off with Denmark are 30 or older.

In contrast, the Danish panel for that game had just four thirty-somethings.

On one level, it's encouraging that none of the players who had been expected to retire after Danish defeat have in fact quit international football.

It was thought that some of the group featuring John O'Shea (36), Wes Hoolahan (35), Glenn Whelan (recently turned 34), Daryl Murphy and Walters (both 34) would retire from the Ireland scene, and while it's still possible, none of them have yet declared their intentions.

One of those players, when contacted by the Herald to ask about his future with Ireland, said he was "still feeling shit about not going to the World Cup" but hadn't yet made a decision on staying with Ireland or retiring.

O'Neill is likely to add some new or new-ish faces to the squad for that training camp and match in Turkey in March, but most of those featured on the 'incoming' list are 25 or over. Alan Judge (29) and John Egan (26) will come back in and look to add to their caps as will Daryl Horgan (25), who was in the initial squad for the Denmark games but didn't travel.

Matt Doherty and Scott Hogan (both 25) will look to make their debuts, having been in previous squads where they were sent back, uncapped while the return to form with Peterborough of Chris Forrester (also 25) should earn him consideration, at least.

But outside of that, Ireland will look to West Ham duo Declan Rice (18) and Josh Cullen (21) to hook up with the senior panel and O'Neill may find that the "young" bit of young talent is relative.

Members of the current U21 side like Corey Whelan (Liverpool to Yeovil) and Harry Charsley (Everton to Bolton) have gained first team experience on loan, but the fact that Bolton's boss admitted that Charsley had a tough time on his debut last week shows there's a way to go yet.

There is a bridge between underage football and the senior panel, and that's the B international scene, but the FAI have shown that the cold shoulder. Mick McCarthy was a fan, as there were three B games played in the space of two years in his time as senior team boss, including one where 10,000 fans flocked to Tolka Park.

But the last B game was a decade ago, against Nottingham Forest. A B international could offer game time to players who are struggling at club level, or offer new recruits (like Scott Hogan) the chance to learn the ropes of international football without the burden of expectation.

Time to undo the disbanding of the B Specials? Worth a try.

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