IT'S BEEN Ireland's midfield minefield for as long as Giovanni Trapattoni has been in charge.
And ahead of tomorrow's crucial Euro 2012 qualifier at home to Macedonia, Glenn Whelan says it's time for him and his comrades in the Irish midfield to step up to the plate and start delivering goals.
Once again, Ireland head into a massive qualification match hoping that the goals will come from one of our strikers, with one of the defenders popping up at the near post with a sneaky header every now and again.
That's because anyone relying on the midfielders to contribute could be in for a very long wait. Of the 20 goals we've scored in competitive games since Trapattoni took over, just three have come from the middle men (Whelan with two and Keith Fahey).
Aiden McGeady has yet to score in 37 internationals while Damien Duff hasn't scored in a competitive game (the Carling Nations Cup doesn't count) in eight long years.
With just two goals from his 26 caps so far, Whelan admits he has come up short and wants to change that against Macedonia tomorrow night.
“I need to score more, I know that, but I think that goes for the whole midfield,” Whelan told the Herald. “It's something I have said I need to work on, getting goals. Everyone loves scoring, if we get goals from anywhere I don't care. If we get two own goals and win the game I don't care. The result is the be-all and end-all but I need to do more.
“So I'll be trying to do all I can to score tomorrow night, if selected,” added Whelan. Just like his namesake, Ronnie, and that famous effort against the USSR in Stuttgart, the Stoke City man tends to score seldom but spectacularly, getting what proved to be the winner ‘away' to Georgia in Trapattoni's first competitive game and then a nice strike past Gianluigi Buffon at home to the Italians.
“Yeah, I scored against Georgia and Italy and they tend to be nice ones,” he says “I don't get in the box all that much so I won't be there for a handy tap-in. I have to have a go from distance. Maybe I'll have a go again tomorrow.”
Tension will be in the Dublin air at 7.45pm tomorrow. Early reports from Skopje stated that their manager's job was on the line, that Mirsad Junuz would get the sack if his side came back with a defeat.
The implications of dropped points for Ireland are just as catastrophic. A draw or even a home defeat here would send Ireland to Skopje in the heat of June desperately needing a win to keep the group alive for the September games at home to Slovakia and away to Russia. And Whelan admits that three points has to be the target.
“If we are serious about qualifying it's a game we have to win. So it's a massive one for us if we're to get out of this group,” Whelan admits.
“A lot of our wins have been narrow and hard-fought, winning by one goal. But a win is a win. If you beat a team 4-0 or 1-0, you still only get three points and goal difference isn't the big deal it once was.
“We'll be doing all we can to beat Macedonia but still treat them with the respect they deserve. With the next game in the group away from home, it's vital to win this one. We want to get out of the group and if we're to do that we have to win games like this.
“When the draw was made you'd look at games like this, Macedonia at home, as a game you need to win and we have to make that happen.
“We can't just turn up on Saturday and expect the win, we'll have to work hard for the points. “We don't know much about Macedonia as a team. I don't think about the opposition too much, we just worry about ourselves and how we play the game. We can't be too concerned about them. “It's about how we approach it, not how they come at us.
“We'll do our homework and we'll know more by the time Saturday comes around.”
Whelan had a real spring in his step when he came into the Ireland camp earlier this week. Not only is he almost guaranteed to play – he has started every competitive game since his debut apart from when suspension kept him out of the home World Cup tie with Montenegro – he's also back in form with his club.
He had a long, long period in cold storage at Stoke – at one stage he went for three months without a Premier League start but he's now back in Tony Pulis' side, starting five of the last six games.
“I'm getting some game time now with Stoke, and real game time. It's hard when you're coming in and just playing 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there. So to get 90 minutes under your belt, coming up to such a big game with Ireland, is a big boost for me,” says Whelan.
“I was just waiting for a chance to show the manager what I am capable of and I have been given that chance, but I won't sit back now an relax. I know I have to work hard in every game to stay in the Stoke team because if I drop my levels someone else will come in and take my slot.
“I kept up my head and never dropped. I believed in myself and believed I was good enough to get into the team. “I just needed a chance and luckily I got that.
“When you're not in the team, you're working ever so hard to get back in and that work stood to me, fitness is not a problem for me. “I was keeping myself fit and ready to go.
“If anything, I was working harder than ever in training to try and force my way into the side, so I never let my head drop.
“It wasn't easy – you can train all you want but you need game time and to play competitive games – to stay mentally sharp as well as physically right and I have got that now.
“I've played the last few games for Stoke and things have gone well for me and for the team, thankfully.”