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'I can't deny that it's a problem' - O'Neill admits concern over striker situation

The Ireland boss isn’t blessed with attacking options for the games against Wales and Poland.

Shane Long and Jonathan Walters could both benefit from a fresh start at club level, says Martin O'Neill.
Shane Long and Jonathan Walters could both benefit from a fresh start at club level, says Martin O'Neill.
Image: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND manager Martin O’Neill lamented his dearth of attacking options after naming his squad today for next month’s double-header of fixtures.

O’Neill included five forward players in his provisional 31-man panel for Ireland’s Uefa Nations League opener against Wales in Cardiff on 6 September, which will be followed five days later by a friendly against Poland in Wroclaw.

Premier League pair Shane Long (Southampton) and Jonathan Walters (Burnley) are the most experienced frontline operators available to O’Neill, who can also call upon the Championship trio of Aiden O’Brien (Millwall), Graham Burke and Callum Robinson (both Preston North End).

Injuries have ruled out Preston’s Sean Maguire and Scott Hogan of Aston Villa, while Daryl Murphy — who scored an 87th-minute equaliser for Nottingham Forest against Birmingham City on Saturday — has followed Robbie Keane into international retirement.

“It’s been a difficulty since I’ve come in here,” O’Neill said regarding Ireland’s options up front. “I inherited a top-class striker in the autumn, if not early winter, of his career, in Robbie Keane. We have not replaced him. He was a natural goalscorer, he could find the net, and at this level that’s naturally very, very important.

“We have had to make do. We can’t go into a transfer market, we can’t try and sort something out, it is what it is. Absolutely, I can’t deny that it’s a problem.”

Long and Walters can boast 134 caps between them, but Burke, Robinson and O’Brien are international novices. Burke featured for the first time in the summer friendlies against France and USA, whereas Robinson and O’Brien have both yet to be capped.

In spite of their experience with Ireland, the outlook at club level isn’t particularly promising for either Long or Walters at present. Long was given his first start of the season for Southampton in Saturday’s defeat to Leicester City. Walters’ only outing for Burnley came in a Europa League qualifying round tie against Basaksehir.

There is scope for both players to complete temporary transfers to clubs in England by dropping down a level. The loan window in the Football League remains open until Friday, as does the window for permanent switches to clubs in Scotland. O’Neill believes the duo could reap the benefits of a fresh start elsewhere.

“I think Jon would definitely need to play a bit more often,” said the Ireland boss. “In the last couple of seasons, Shane has probably spent more time at club level on the bench than he has actually played. He’ll maybe play a game or two and then miss out for three or four matches and things like that.”

He added: “I think Jon is a bit frustrated. Who knows what might happen in the next couple of days? Am I advocating for him to get a move? I don’t think I even have to advocate it. It would be something beneficial if Jon was playing more regularly. It would also be beneficial if Shane was, but that’s the club’s choice.”

Nevertheless, O’Neill is relatively enthused by the presence of Callum Robinson in his squad. The English-born 23-year-old recently declared for Ireland and is now eligible to play after obtaining an Irish passport via his Monaghan-born grandmother.

O’Neill, who watched Robinson in action in Preston’s 2-0 defeat to Norwich City last Wednesday, said: “He’s a nice footballer. I think there was some frustration during the course of the game that he played in on Wednesday night. He got into some really decent positions and didn’t follow through.

“I think his manager was a little bit frustrated — not just with him [Robinson], but with his whole team — but then Callum picks it up, takes a couple of players on near the edge of the penalty area and flashes this left-footed shot against the bar. That’s what I would be encouraging him to do.

“On the edge of the penalty area, start to take players on and don’t be afraid of that, just go for it. Sean Maguire, until his injury, I thought that’s what was pleasing about him. He was prepared to turn and go at players. This is what I want Robinson to do if things work out.”

O’Neill also insisted that his side will have a competitive mindset going into the inaugural Uefa Nations League campaign. While the new competition remains an unknown quantity, it does offer the possibility of an additional avenue for qualification for Euro 2020. Ireland and Wales are joined in their group by Denmark.

“I think that we should treat it as seriously as possible,” O’Neill said. “I have no idea what other nations are thinking about it. As far as we’re concerned, it might also involve a lowering or a highering of our seeding situation come the draw for the Euros, so I don’t think the importance of it should be underestimated.”

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Paul Dollery

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