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Thursday 14 November 2019

Young guns look very promising but Ireland needs strike power in the short term

David McGoldrick
David McGoldrick

Shane Lowry brought a major winning presence to the Irish team hotel on Monday evening, with a connection through Robbie Keane facilitating the visit.

It's a stretch to find a natural crossover between the sports, but there is one hackneyed line that can easily apply to football.

'Drive for show and putt for dough' ranks up there with 'goals win games' in the cliché stakes. But there is a simple truth to it. Sticking the ball away is what matters and Ireland's performance in that department has been below par since Keane went past his prime.

Lowry shares his name with two players who back up that point. Shane Long was the top-scoring international in Mick McCarthy's provisional list but has been deemed surplus to retirements because of his inactivity at Southampton and a general deterioration in his status.

Central defender Shane Duffy has provided Ireland's main threat over the past couple of years, which tells its own tale.

Take the games with Gibraltar out of the equation and the dead ball has delivered the big points for Ireland. Conor Hourihane's superb free against Georgia in March and Duffy's bullet header from a precise Alan Judge delivery in Copenhagen have created the good vibes.

The manager needs a new hero to emerge if the green shirts are to do the business in general play. As he surveys his options ahead of tomorrow's date with Switzerland, McCarthy is relying on four strikers who have never struck a goal at international level before.

Callum Robinson's weekend effort for Sheffield United at Chelsea does mean that Irel and can call upon a forward player that has hit the target at Premier League level. But he's still familiarising himself with the Irish set-up having landed in during the slow death of Martin O'Neill's regime.

David McGoldrick was out of favour completely during that period, and spoke yesterday about his sudden turnaround in fortunes. His inability to score in his ten caps to date still troubles him.

The McGoldrick-Robinson axis now has potential to be effective for both club and country, a versatile duo that can play a range of roles.

Back-up options Scott Hogan and James Collins are closer to the traditional description of a striker, tending to do all of their best work inside the box. But they are unproven in this sphere. And, in all likelihood, Ireland need their front players to be equally effective outside the area if they are to unsettle the top seeds.

McGoldrick won the admiration of Dublin fans against Georgia because of his strong running and tracking back to aid the defensive effort in tandem with promising attacking play.

This is the asterisk that must accompany the bleak goal statistics. It's not as if Irish teams have created stacks of chances that forward players have squandered.

Still, the bottom-line return in this area does highlight a void in Irish football that rapidly became apparent in the aftermath of Keane's retirement and his generational peers Kevin Doyle, Daryl Murphy and latterly Jonathan Walters all reaching the end of the road.

The sidelining of Long and the loss of Sean Maguire to a freak injury means there isn't a homegrown attacker on McCarthy's list. McGoldrick and Robinson were recruited as senior pros, with the latter having played underage for England.

Hogan hummed and hawed before committing to Ireland, while Collins was always interested but well out of the frame when plying his trade in the third and fourth tier of the English game.

Given the profile of that quartet, the excitement around the emerging U-21 group is entirely understandable. Michael Obafemi was lost to injury, but Stephen Kenny can still call upon four strikers that were kids when Keane was setting records.

Belvedere graduate Troy Parrott is the name on everyone's lips, a 17-year-old from inner city Dublin who was described as the Spurs back-up to Harry Kane by Mauricio Pochettino last week. He's got a burden on his young shoulders now.

Aaron Connolly from Galway played League of Ireland underage with Mervue United before setting off to Brighton, where he's had to bide his time before coming into the first-team picture. The left-sided attacker was prolific with their U23 side last term and a scoring League Cup appearance against Bristol Rovers earned him a Premier League debut off the bench against Manchester City.

Adam Idah is a product of Ringmahon Rangers in Cork, a number nine who was given a start by Norwich in what turned out to be a disappointing League Cup reverse at Crawley.

Forget that blip. He's got a four-year contract and a place in Daniel Farke's first-team squad.

Jonathan Afolabi has dealt admirably with the disappointment of his release from Southampton, starring in the European U19 Championships due to the unavailability of those named above and earning a three-year contract with Celtic as a consequence.

Throw in Obafemi, who did grow up in England, and there is a feeling that Ireland has a production line to be excited about. What they require is a short-term fix for the Euro 2020 run-in. Similar to Lowry, the conversion rate on four big days will determine the story of their year.

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