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Dublin: 12°C Monday 23 November 2020

O'Neill concerned about lack of game-time for big players ahead of must-win qualifiers

The Ireland boss has a goalkeeping issue while defensive pairing John O’Shea and Marc Wilson are short on match practice.

O'Neill in Abbottstown earlier today.
O'Neill in Abbottstown earlier today.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

MARTIN O’NEILL NAMED A bumper Ireland squad at FAI headquarters this afternoon, but he will be hoping a number of his key players can get minutes under their belts over the next fortnight.

With the exception of Bournemouth midfielder Eunan O’Kane, there were no new faces on the 37-strong list as the Ireland gear up for a Euro 2016 qualifying double-header with Gibraltar (4 September) and Georgia (7 September).

That said, uncapped pair Alan Judge and Adam Rooney were only called-up for the first time back in May, while Preston North End full-back Greg Cunningham makes his return having earned the last of four senior caps back in 2013.

“It’s not unusual to have a pretty large squad, but this particular time there is much need for it as there are a lot of players starting off the season,” said O’Neill. “As you are aware, some players have settled in at their clubs. Other people in this particular squad have not had that much game-time.”

While it will have been pleasing for the Derry man to see the likes of Wes Hoolahan, Robbie Brady, Ciaran Clark, Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy, Shane Long, Jon Walters and Glenn Whelan feature in the opening weeks of the Premier League, others have yet to kick a ball this season.

His goalkeeping situation is a concern. After a summer move from Aston Villa to Stoke City, Shay Given has played second fiddle to Jack Butland thus far.

Meanwhile, last season’s Championship Goalkeeper of the Year, Keiren Westwood, picked up a bruised kidney over the weekend. The Sheffield Wednesday stopper is likely to miss a couple of games but could yet be fit for Ireland duty.

Then there’s David Forde, now playing in League One with Millwall, and West Ham’s back-up keeper Darren Randolph looks set for a run in the Hammers’ side as Adrian serves a three-match ban.

“The situation with the goalkeeper is pretty apparent,” said O’Neill. “In the normal sequence of events, you would like the goalkeeper you are relying on to have some first team football by the time the games come around.”

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Hull City v Sunderland - KC Stadium John O'Shea has been left out of the Sunderland team this season. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Perhaps even more worrying is the fact that O’Neill’s first choice defensive pairing — John O’Shea and Marc Wilson — haven’t featured at all for their clubs.

“I would be absolutely concerned about that,” he explained. “Marc has had a disjointed start to the season in that he picked up an injury in pre-season and took a wee bit of time to get over it. I’ve spoken to him and he feels he is definitely up for it. He feels as if he has got over it and is raring to go.

“John, on the other hand, will be disappointed as he is fit but he hasn’t played in the games. That’s a disappointment but it is also nice to see Ciaran Clark back from injury and playing in the Aston Villa side.”

There is no doubt that Clark’s solid start alongside Micah Richards is a positive for Ireland. The 25-year-old has matured over the past year and Villa boss Tim Sherwood appears to have put his faith in him.

“He has overcome a few niggling injuries and I think he is properly fit, touch wood,” added the man who gave Clark his debut for the Birmingham club back in 2009. ”I’m really pleased to see him starting the season pretty decently.”

Just as he was after the 1-1 draw with Scotland back in June, O’Neill remains insistent that Ireland are not out of contention for a place at next year’s finals, despite their current standing.

We have four games left and we have to win both of these games,” he said. “It is almost essential for us and while there will be a few twists and turns, these are games we will have to win.

“My own view is that we are still well in the group and we are capable of qualifying. I think we can do it and it is in our own hands.”

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Ben Blake

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