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O'Neill ready for serious business of qualifiers after 'the longest build-up imaginable'

Plenty of decisions for Ireland boss to mull over before his squad meets up in Malahide next week.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

IT MUST HAVE seemed like this day would never come but yesterday, nine months into his term as Ireland manager, Martin O’Neill could finally name a squad for a competitive fixture.

Well, sort of.

The 36-man panel announced yesterday for the upcoming friendly against Oman and the opening Euro 2016 qualifier against Georgia was very much a provisional one. With no new caps and no surprises, it effectively contained every player that O’Neill might have reason to consider between now and the trip to Tbilisi on 7 September.

“We have the provisional list with, what is it, 94 I think on it and we’ll narrow that down to 87 then in two days’ time,” he joked but the logic was clear. Rather than revising and re-revising as players drop out and replacements are called up, O’Neill plans to cut the numbers once, if possible, to a final 23 before the squad meet up in Malahide a week from Sunday.

With a full league programme still to come this weekend, as well as a round of league cup fixtures for some players in midweek, a lot can happen between now and then.

There are a number of question marks already on that list of 36. Darron Gibson is still “a wee bit below match fitness” as he works his way back from a knee ligament injury and we should know more about his Everton team-mate Seamus Coleman this weekend. The right-full played the last five minutes of the 2-2 draw against Leicester City and all going well, should be fit when the Toffees host Arsenal on Saturday evening.

Andy Reid is still struggling for fitness while Wigan’s James McClean and Hull’s Robbie Brady are two others in the maybe pile after sitting out the start to their respective club seasons, although the latter may have a chance to impress if O’Neill takes in Hull’s game against Stoke as planned on Sunday.

What do we know then?

Robbie Keane — now the leading active international goalscorer following Miroslav Klose’s retirement — will remain as captain for the upcoming campaign.

There’s no Richard Dunne, despite O’Neill’s belief that the man-mountain defender had one more competitive campaign left in him before international retirement.

“Honestly, I was disappointed that he wanted to retire because I still think he’s well and truly capable,” O’Neill lamented yesterday.

There’s no Jack Grealish either after the highly-rated Aston Villa youngster and his father spoke with O’Neill and indicated that he did not want to be considered for a senior call-up at this time. With England openly trying to coax the teen midfielder back to the country of his birth, the possibility of losing him will be a concern until the matter is definitively resolved.

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Roy Keane with Martin O'Neill and Steve Walford Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Otherwise, there was a strong hint that David Forde will remain as first-choice keeper though he’s bound to face a much tougher fight now that the man he deposed, Keiren Westwood, is back playing regular first-team football at Sheffield Wednesday.

With so many ifs, buts and maybes, does O’Neill know his best starting XI himself at the moment?

“I’ve got a fair idea,” he said.

There was no doubt in his mind either about the function of the Dublin friendly against Oman on 3 September, four days before the game in Tbilisi.

We organised the Oman game way back and for this reason — there was always the possibility that a number of our players, talented as they may be, may not have played that much football coming in.

“Of course you’ve done away now with the August international game and so for us I thought it was an opportunity for a couple of things. One, that a couple of players that you might be relying on against Georgia wouldn’t have played that much football, and that’s the way it is.”

O’Neill won’t be put off if his preferred starters are a little bit short of match practice between now and the beginning of the campaign. It is a factor to be considered, sure, but not the be all and end all.

“In an ideal world it would be great if they were all playing first-team football and playing well but that might not be the case.”

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Even allowing for all the question marks, O’Neill feels that he is well-briefed on the challenge Georgia will present and knows how he wants to approach it. After nine months of dress rehearsals, it’s nearly time to put those plans into action.

“It’s actually incredible, almost surreal in the sense that you start a job in November and your first game is the following September.

It has been the longest build-up imaginable. The real stuff starts very, very shortly.

“I’m excited, I’m obviously concerned of course, my usual things that I go through. Now it’s getting very close.”

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Niall Kelly

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