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Here's what the Republic of Ireland's starting XI should be for their first game of 2018

With the squad in transition, some younger players should certainly get their chance to shine.

Image: Nick Potts

WHEN YOU GAZE towards any new year, optimism is the order of the day. Of course you will go to the gym more. Of course you will cut down on the Jaffa Cakes. Of course you will stop scrolling through your phone when you’re in bed.

So, in keeping with that, we’ve selected what we feel should be the starting XI for the Republic of Ireland’s first fixture of 2018: a friendly against Turkey in Antalya on 23 March.

A new year, a new start. Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? In some cases, certainly. It’s time to move on.

A mixture of experienced faces and players that deserve their chance, there’s also plenty of scope to give certain individuals some minutes from the bench.

Goalkeeper: Darren Randolph

No change required here. The 30-year-old is the undisputed number one and conjured some impressive performances during the disappointing World Cup qualifiers, notably in the play-off first leg against Denmark.  He’s enjoying his first season at Middlesbrough and has been an ever-present for them at the time of writing.

Right-back: Seamus Coleman

The word on Merseyside is that Coleman may struggle to wrestle his place back in the Everton starting lineup owing to the impressive form of youngster Jonjoe Kenny. It may be an interesting pub debate for Toffees fans but the Irish team has struggled without Coleman, such is his impact and influence. Cyrus Christie is a noble deputy but the skipper is a leader and inspirational figure. And there’s no doubting him strolling straight back into the side.

Centre-back: Shane Duffy

It’s not so long since Duffy suffered the ignominy of an error-ridden performance against France at Euro 2016 that culminated in a red card. After excelling in the previous game against Italy, the comedown was swift and there were questions about whether he could be trusted. At club level, he seemed to continue that run and memorably endured another nightmare for Blackburn in a league game against Cardiff at the start of the 2016/17 season. Still, Duffy’s numbers marked him out as an excellent centre-half and he proved that by securing a high-profile move to Brighton for a then-club record fee. Since then, he’s never looked back. He’s been an ever-present in their Premier League campaign this season and blossomed into Ireland’s first-choice centre-half.

Centre-back: Declan Rice

It’s been quite the rapid ascent for the West Ham defender.

Stoke City v West Ham United - Premier League - Bet365 Stadium Source: Dave Thompson

A previous Under-17 Player of the Year with his country, he needs to be handed opportunities at senior level. Both Slaven Bilic and David Moyes have thought very highly of him and he continues to be praised by long-suffering Hammers supporters. He can operate in central midfield too but his long-term future may be as a centre-half.

Left-back: Matt Doherty

A problem area for this Irish side. Stephen Ward is 32 and, while a regular for an impressive Burnley, he’s not the future. Still, it’s worth wondering just who is. Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to convert Robbie Brady into a left-back as a youngster at Manchester United but it’s not something that has ever gained much momentum with a player who clearly prefers playing further forward. James McClean doesn’t have the defensive discipline for the role so, let’s turn to a specialist. Matt Doherty is more used to playing on the other flank but at least he’s a full-back. He’s also a crucial ingredient in the current Wolves team that’s blitzing the Championship. The 25-year-old is enjoying his football and it’s time he was given another chance to show what he can.

Midfield: Harry Arter

He’s being linked with a big-money move away from Bournemouth at the end of the season and that’s a reflection of how far he’s come. His career gives you a window into the player he is. Signed by Eddie Howe for an undisclosed fee in 2010 after Gillingham and Ipswich both said no, he’s been consistent, loyal and understated ever since. He’s 27 now and the level of influence he courts at club level should be matched with Ireland.

Midfield: Conor Hourihane

If the Corkman can just add a little more consistency to his performances for Aston Villa, his regular inclusion in Ireland’s starting lineups should be assured.

Soccer 2017 - Mexico defeats Republic of Ireland Source: Brooks Von Arx

Some days, like when he grabbed a hat-trick against Norwich, he’s unplayable. And then he’ll drift through other games and find it tough to make an imprint. Still, he’s a valuable asset to this team and he’s a rare Irish player who can offer goals and assists from midfield.

Midfield: Jeff Hendrick

Steady if unspectacular, Hendrick was always likely to regress to the mean after such a superb experience at Euro 2016. He’s had his moments for club and country this season – the terrific assist for James McClean’s winner against Wales in Cardiff, really important winners for Burnley against Everton and Newcastle – and it’s probably a little unfair to expect much more considering the calculated team ethic under Sean Dyche at Turf Moor and the workmanlike approach instilled by Martin O’Neill. As part of a central midfield three with his club, he’s got immediate priorities and if he can add something going forward that’s even better. The role is something similar with Ireland.

Attack: Callum O’Dowda

Certainly not the finished article but the 22-year-old has a lot of positives to his game, not least his pace and a desire to make things happen. There’s a concern that he’s still a little lightweight and that, as a result, he can be pushed out of games and his contribution easily minimised. It’s not a like-for-like comparison but there are some similarities with Adnan Januzaj. Still, he’s got time on his hands and in terms of toughening up, he’s certainly in the right place. Bristol are flying in the Championship and he’s done well for them. Already with a taste for senior action, he should see a lot more from here on.

Attack: James McClean

At 28, McClean is working hard to keep his place at West Brom. With Alan Pardew having come in as manager and the Baggies scrapping for survival, the club’s tried and tested methods have stopped working. And that’s led to McClean no longer being first-choice. But, particularly with Robbie Brady out injured, it’s hard to see him losing his place in the Irish side. There’s plenty of perspiration – not enough inspiration, usually – but he’s a huge fan favourite and an experienced figure in the squad.

Attack: Sean Maguire

The time has come.

Hull City v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship - KCOM Stadium Source: Richard Sellers

Maguire, quite simply, has to be the first-choice Irish attacker from here on. He has a natural, innate ability to find the net. That same obsession with scoring goals that the best strikers have in common. Is he conjuring an incredible scoring run for Preston? No. But he’s also not had a break from football this year because of moving to Deepdale from Cork City at the end of July. In 11 starts, he’s scored four times. He’s added three assists. And it would be a lot more if it wasn’t for that serious hamstring injury. It’s certainly not a bad return. He’s mobile and smart and excellent in front of goal. And that’s a combination no other Irish striker has right now.

Bench:

Some players could easily find themselves in the starting XI and vice versa. Guys like John Egan are closing in on regular game-time. Kevin O’Connor is raw but certainly worth looking at. His Preston team-mate Alan Browne is another name that’s worthy of inclusion. And before getting injured Greg Cunningham was also in great form for PNE. Digging into the Under-21 team, the likes of Connor Ronan (who Kevin de Bruyne was such a fan of when Wolves played Man City in the League Cup) and Harry Charsley (on the fringes at Everton) should get senior call-ups soon. And, are we about to enter a golden age of Irish goalkeepers? 21-year-old Kieran O’Hara has signed a new contract at Manchester United while Caoimhin Kelleher is highly-regarded at Liverpool.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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