AFTER RUNNING THE rule over Ireland’s goalkeeping options yesterday, today we turn our attention to the back four and their likely deputies in the Euro 2012 squad.
Giovanni Trapattoni has already hinted that he is likely to settle on seven defenders who can cover a variety of roles rather than eight positional specialists, giving him room to tinker in midfield and attack.
Some of the names pick themselves but beyond that, there’s plenty of scope for debate. So who’s going to Poland and who’s staying at home?
Now that he has shaken the shoulder injury which sidelined him for 10 anxious weeks, Richard Dunne will be the first name on most people’s squad lists.
The Honey Monster was at the heart of Ireland’s stingy defence throughout qualification and missed only two games — the wins in Macedonia and in Andorra — while his bloodstained heroism against Russia in Moscow will go down as one of the all-time great international performances.
Before his Premier League comeback for Aston Villa last weekend, there were concerns about the timeline of his recovery and Marco Tardelli stressed that the Tallaght native would not travel unless he was 100% fit. Dunne is ready though and sure to be a guaranteed starter.
With 75 international caps under his belt, 31-year-old O’Shea brings plenty of experience to the Irish defence.
Versatility is one of his key strengths and while he is likely to play at right-full as per usual under Trapattoni, he is equally comfortable at centre-half as he has shown time and again at Sunderland this season.
An ill-timed calf strain ruled him out of action for the end of March and most of April, but he’s been back to his imposing best against Aston Villa and Sunderland in recent weeks.
A no-brainer for the squad and for the starting XI.
Sean St Ledger
Sean St Ledger hasn’t had the easiest season of his career but he can be confident that he has done enough to keep himself in Trapattoni’s favour for the summer.
The Birmingham-born centre-half moved from Preston North End to Leicester last summer where it took time to work his way into manager Nigel Pearson’s favour. A short spell in the first team came to an abrupt end when he was dropped and transfer listed following a row with Pearson, only for the manager to back down and recall him in January.
Since then, St Ledger has featured prominently and there is little to suggest that Trap will deviate from the Dunne-St Ledger defensive partnership which served him so well in qualifying.
Stephen Ward has unquestionably been one of the success stories of this Irish team in the last 12 months.
The former Bohs man made his international debut in the Carling Nations Cup win against Northern Ireland, scoring the opener in a 5-0 win. He hasn’t looked back since then, effectively retiring Kevin Kilbane from international football by slotting into the left back slot which “Killer” made his own for so many years.
Ward isn’t without his critics though and the mere mention of his ragged performance against Russia in Moscow is still enough to give some grown men shivers.
An ever-present in the league for relegated Wolves this season, he remains the default candidate for the left side of Ireland’s defence.
If the four men named above are as close to “sure things” as you can be in a Trapattoni squad, Stephen Kelly has to be considered the fifth man in.
Although he has been the starting right back for most of the season at Fulham, the Dubliner can do a job at centre-half as well if required, making him an ideal multi-purpose cover man.
Trap showed his faith in Kelly when he handed him the captain’s armband for the friendly against Uruguay last year and didn’t hesitate to call on him when John O’Shea was injured for the first leg of the Estonia play-off in November.
Voted Ireland’s Young Player of the Year in 2011, it is hard to see Trapattoni leaving O’Dea at home this summer.
After a couple of years in the relative wilderness, the 25-year-old centre-half played his way onto the panel when given his chance against Macedonia last March. He went on to make three more appearances in the remainder of the campaign, including the 0-0 draw against Russia where he held his own alongside Richard Dunne.
The Dubliner is an obvious cover option in the middle of the back four, but Trap has also shown a tendency to switch O’Shea into the centre as circumstances dictate and that may limit O’Dea’s chances of game time.
Trapattoni’s oft-stated phobia of losing players to injury or suspension means that a utility player like Foley will quietly fancy his chances of sneaking in as the squad’s final defender.
He has only played 16 league games for Wolves so far this season, alternating between defence and midfield, though he appears to be back in Terry Connor’s favour in recent weeks.
Foley’s only competitive appearance under Trap came against Macedonia last season but he was in and around the fringes of the squad for most of the qualifying campaign.
Could be one of those players who the manager wants to reward for his loyalty; could just as easily be sacrificed.
Of the other contenders, a fit-again Ciaran Clark has the most reason to feel that he is worthy of a place. The Aston Villa man missed 10 weeks with a knee injury and only made his return to action in the 4-0 defeat against Manchester United last month. Before that setback, Alex McLeish had experimented with him in a midfield role with some success but Trapattoni is likely to view him more as an out-and-out defender.
Everton’s Shane Duffy impressed on Merseyside when thrust into the middle of a defensive injury crisis earlier in the year. The Derry native was rewarded by Trapattoni with a call-up to the bench for the February friendly against the Czech Republic, but despite the Italian’s promise of a first cap, never made it on to the pitch. Expect to see more of him on the Road to Rio, but not this summer.
Those on the fringes of the squad will be looking over their shoulder at Paul McShane, and rightly so because the Wicklow man has a habit of finding his way back into Trapattoni’s squads much to the annoyance of some Irish fans. The fact that McShane was on the bench for the do-or-die play-off first leg in Tallinn proves that he is not a million miles away from the Italian’s mind and he has been a regular starter since going out on loan to Crystal Palace in January, which will work in his favour.
Although he’s been a regular for Stoke this season, Marc Wilson never really recovered from his no-show when called up to the Carling Nations Cup squad last summer, and it would be a massive u-turn for Trapattoni to bring him back in from the cold now.
Ian Harte made it plainly clear last week that he would be ready to resurrect his international career if asked but the chances are slim, even for a player who made the Championship Team of the Year with promoted Reading. He has 63 caps and 11 international goals — could Ireland use a free-kick specialist?