John O'Shea. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Szmodics, Azaz, Cannon? John O'Shea's options as he unveils his first Irish squad

The interim boss names his selection for the Belgium and Switzerland friendlies on Thursday.

TOMORROW, JOHN O’SHEA will announce his first and perhaps only squad as Ireland’s head coach, though it’s anticipated to be broadly similar to Stephen Kenny’s final selection last November. 

Brian Kerr, back perhaps temporarily as a technical adviser, told Virgin Media last week he isn’t anticipating any major changes for the friendly matches against Belgium and Switzerland on 23 and 26 March. 

The broadening of the squad and the recruitment of players will be Stephen Kenny’s legacy, so O’Shea has options to assess at goalkeeper along with in defence and up front. Alas, our midfield options remain desperately limited. 

Barring injury, Gavin Bazunu and Caoimhín Kelleher will obviously be included, and perhaps Max O’Leary will edge out Mark Travers, given he is playing regularly. 

In defence, Seamus Coleman has had relatively little game of late for Everton, but if he is fit he will want to be included, and he should be. This Irish squad lacks experienced leaders, so every bit of Coleman’s influence should be valued. 

Elsewhere, Callum O’Dowda has returned to fitness at Cardiff, so he is pushing for a recall, potentially at Ryan Manning’s expense, given Festy Ebosele and Matt Doherty are unlikely to be dropped. Neil Farrugia may have been in contention too, had it not been for another wretched bit of injury luck. 

At centre-back, Jake O’Brien’s form for Lyon surely deserves a first call-up. Given all of Andrew Omobamidele, Dara O’Shea, Nathan Collins, and Liam Scales are playing regularly for their clubs, it may be the case that Shane Duffy is the man O’Brien pushes to the fringes. 

Ireland’s midfield remains the weakest part of their squad, and a regular under Kenny, Jayson Molumby, is out until next season with a foot injury. As to who will come in, the options look pretty limited. Jack Taylor at Ipswich is a potential option, and a true wildcard would be Bosun Lawal, on loan at Fleetwood in League One. His call-up would be ahead of schedule, but he offers Ireland a physicality they lack in midfield so O’Shea might decide he is worth assessing. A summer call-up looks likelier, however. 

Josh Cullen has recently been restored to the Burnley team and will be recalled barring unexpected injury, and all of Alan Browne, Jason Knight, Jamie McGrath, and Will Smallbone should be recalled. O’Shea may find room for Robbie Brady, while Jeff Hendrick hasn’t played in three months because of injury. 

He should find space for Middlesbrough’s Finn Azaz, whose creative qualities and ball-striking would add greatly to Ireland. There is no reason to fret about his eligibility – he cannot switch to Israel as he has played a competitive game for Ireland’s U21s after his 21st birthday – but, on form, he deserves his call-up. Andrew Moran may drop back down to the U21s. 

Among the forwards, Callum Robinson and Troy Parrott may miss out through injury, but Michael Obafemi is fit again and will likely return. Barring injury, Evan Ferguson, Adam Idah, Mikey Johnston, and Chiedozie Ogbene are certain to be included. 

blackburns-sammie-szmodics-celebrates-after-scoring-his-sides-opening-goal-during-the-english-fa-cup-fifth-round-soccer-match-between-blackburn-rovers-and-newcastle-at-ewood-park-stadium-in-black Sammie Szmodics. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Sammie Szmodics will surely be included, too. Reports linking him with a transfer to Hungary have been dismissed in their national press, and omitting him on form would be inexplicable. Kenny recruited Szmodics but didn’t cap him: his transfer was held up for a while and by the time it went through, he wasn’t very keen on playing a fringe role at a time of important family commitments. O’Shea’s first scouting mission was to a Blackburn game, so Szmodics may even start against Belgium or Switzerland. 

Kasey McAteer’s eligibility for Ireland remains a mystery – Stephen Kenny revealed he was close to completing a transfer last October – but there has been no update since. He has been recently sidelined by injury, however, so he is unlikely to be included in tomorrow’s squad regardless of his eligibility status.

It is perhaps a sign of Ireland’s depth at striker now that there has been relatively little clamour to cap Wolves’ Nathan Fraser, who has recently made a Premier League breakthrough. Fraser was born in England but has played with the Irish U19s: it remains to be seen if he will stick around with Ireland. A call-up tomorrow looks a very remote prospect, but if his name is included, it will be a sign O’Shea and the FAI are getting aggressive in trying to tie down talent. Northern Ireland and Wales are now reaping the benefits of doing so years ago. 

Further to that point, it will be interesting to see whether Tom Cannon’s name appears on tomorrow’s list. The prevailing view at the FAI is Cannon is ready for a senior call-up, rather than another U21 cap, and O’Shea is obviously aware of his situation. 

Cannon turned down a call-up to the Irish U21s last June, amid interest from the English FA, and there has been little clarity on his choice of allegiance since. If he is open to playing for Ireland, he should be included in tomorrow’s squad. 

Using the friendly double-header to assess options and potentially tie down dual-eligible players looks a better option than picking a squad just to try and win the games. Positive results would improve our Fifa ranking, but that is emerging as less relevant when compared to Nations League seeding, so Ireland need to be in as strong a position as possible when England come to town in September. 

What a pity the FAI have squandered one of their two preparatory windows by failing to install their next permanent boss in time. But if O’Shea is retained by that manager, then some of this opportunity will be salvaged. 

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