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Tuesday 12 December 2017

Young guns unable to dislodge Ireland's old guard at present

Trying to qualify for tournaments is my job: O'Neill

Kevin Long is one player who has broken through to the Irish senior squad under Martin O’Neill, although the Burnley player is already 27
Kevin Long is one player who has broken through to the Irish senior squad under Martin O’Neill, although the Burnley player is already 27
Martin O'Neill

Martin O'Neill, the man in charge of the oldest squad to compete at the Euro 2016 finals, admits that it's proving to be a big challenge for the younger crop of Republic of Ireland players to step up and play on the big stage at international level.

O'Neill is in Dublin today to name his squad for the World Cup double-header against Moldova and Wales, with the squad due to assemble at FAI HQ for training next Monday.

Uncapped players like Seán Maguire (23), Liam Kelly (21) and Declan Rice (18) will have their supporters, who would like to see the trio make the final squad, possibly even play, instead of being included in the 39-strong provisional panel but then be left out of the squad which travels to Dublin.

The squad which O'Neill relies on is heavy on experience, as Wes Hoolahan (35), Jon Walters and Daryl Murphy (both 34) and John O'Shea (36) will make the squad along with team-mates who are also on the wrong side of 30 (Glenn Whelan, Stephen Ward, Aiden McGeady, Darren Randolph, Shane Long, Jonny Hayes).

Even the most recent player to come through and claim a place in the team, Burnley's Kevin Long, is 27, making this Irish squad a very grey-haired one.

But O'Neill maintains that the young guns have not yet done enough to dislodge the old guard.

"You want to try to qualify for competitions, that's my job," O'Neill said ahead of today's squad announcement.

"If I had taken up the mantle here almost four years ago and John Delaney had said to me, 'what we want is in four years' time to have a young side that is vibrant and ready to go so don't worry about qualification', I think we could have done that quite easily.

"With some of the old guard, who have been really, really fine players for the national side, we could easily have said 'lads, time is up, we are going with this youth policy'.

"But we still wanted to qualify for competitions and some of the old guard have said to me 'that's fine, I still want to play but if someone comes along who is younger and better than me, I will push to the side'. That's the nature of the game.

"But what's happened is that some of the older players have stuck with it, and have been excellent for us. What we are looking for at this minute is younger players of that quality to come through and take their place; not just take their place for one or two games but be good enough to compete at this level and that's the most important thing.

"Competing here at this level, international football, is a step up for the players, and this is where we have to compete," added O'Neill.

"What I've noticed here, in my only spell as an international manager, the majority of players do want to play, they want to play for their country and that is the most important issue.

Start

"When you've got that, you've got a start. After that, if some of the players are playing in the Championship, or maybe not even playing regularly in the Championship, but you feel that for an evening or two in quick succession they can come in and be able to do a job, then you have to try to elevate those players.

"To elevate them to a point where they feel that they are capable, at least for a while, of being able to do it."

The FAI expect a full house at home to Moldova in 10 days' time while Ireland will be well-supported in Cardiff for the final group game, evidenced by the fact that 9,500 fans applied for the 3,500 tickets on offer. O'Neill wants the crowd to play their part.

"I think sometimes if you've got the crowd on your side, willing you on, I think that can help. From my own experiences as a player, when the crowd were with you, you felt that surge of confidence, you felt as if you were capable of taking on the very, very best and even though it might be ephemeral for players, you want it to be there for the moments that are very important," he says.

"My thinking is pretty clear, the Moldova game is everything. We have to win this game and it will be a nervy 90 minutes. We have seen this before in games that we are hoping to win. We want to try and go to Wales with everything to play for so the game has become ultra-important for us.

"The crowd have been fantastic, and we will definitely need that support if we are going to go through because we are missing a couple of players. Who knows what the next couple of weeks might bring in terms of injuries to key players.

"So we need the crowd badly in this particular game and that's really important. So if you are talking about a message going out to the fans, if you could get three-quarters of the noise that they have made in recent times, here I would be delighted."

Back in November, O'Neill's side were two points clear at the top of the Group D table thanks to the win in Vienna but even though the team are now in third place, O'Neill says he "would have taken" this scenario when the campaign started.

"We got off to a really fine start. In the previous competition we got off to a reasonable start then stuttered during the middle of it but came very, very strong in the last part of the competition and that got us through," he says.

"Beating the world champions was massive. We have to rise to the occasion again. This is it.

" We have two games and we know that if win those two games that you would be desperately unlucky not to be in the play-offs.

"If you had said to me, at the start of the competition, before we even travelled to Serbia, you have to win your last game at home and you have to win in Wales to make it to the play-offs, I would have taken it."

The Irish squad, with injury concerns over James McCarthy, Harry Arter and Jon Walters, will assemble in Dublin next weekend.

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