Bit players’ chance for star billing
THE trip to Gibraltar for the first Euro 2020 qualifier may be more than three months away, but the work has already started for Mick McCarthy. One of his first priorities is to meet West Ham midfielder Declan Rice and make his own bid to sign him up for the Republic of Ireland.
There are also those on the fringes of the squad, ignored or discarded by the previous regime, who will be on McCarthy’s radar as he assigns matches to his coaching staff across England, Scotland and Ireland.
McCarthy aims to strengthen the core of the squad which failed so miserably in the Nations League campaign under Martin O’Neill. That changes the landscape for players like Aiden McGeady who has rediscovered his form in League One at Sunderland.
Who, then, are the main names who will be looking to make an impression as the countdown begins for the March qualifiers against Gibraltar and Georgia?
MATT DOHERTY (Wolves)
THE full-back’s assist against Chelsea in midweek was his third of the season as the former Bohemians defender continues to settle into life in the Premier League.
Now 26, the Dubliner has been a virtual ever-present under Wolves coach Nuno Espirito Santo, despite the influx of largely Portuguese players the former Porto boss has signed since his arrival at Molineux more than 18 months ago.
Named in the Championship team of last season, Doherty can play at left or right-back but it is in the Wolves five-man defence that he has really thrived, adding two goals to his assists since their return to the Premier League this season.
But Doherty struggled to impress Martin O’Neill and had to wait two years between his first call-up to the senior squad and his first cap as a sub against Turkey earlier this year.
Although Cyrus Christie performed well in the absence of injured captain Seamus Coleman at right-back, even Stephen Ward’s injuries could not persuade O’Neill to give Doherty a run on the other side of the Irish defence. Doherty’s frustration with the previous regime got the better of him in a radio interview on the day of departure.
McCarthy, of course, knows Doherty well, as the Wolves manager was prepared to take a gamble on him eight years ago and sign him after a pre-season game against Bohemians, when he was playing out of position. He hadn’t played a first team game for Bohs at that stage and was signed for £75,000, making his Premier League debut against Liverpool a year later.
McCarthy also knows Doherty is good enough to be a long-term replacement at left-back for Ward, another of his Wolves signings from the League of Ireland, who is not playing at Burnley, currently sidelined with a knee injury.
DAVID McGOLDRICK (Sheffield United)
THE 30-year-old striker, who struggled to make any impression on Martin O’Neill, comes back into the reckoning having been encouraged by McCarthy to play for Ireland when it was discovered he was eligible.
And the striker McCarthy signed for Ipswich Town five years ago is in the best form of his career after leaving Portman Road on a free transfer in the summer to join Sheffield United.
Bramall Lane regular Alan Biggs, the veteran broadcaster and journalist, said Blades boss Chris Wilder had to convince United fans McGoldrick was a good addition to his squad after he had impressed during pre-season trials. “He has been superb and the best free transfer of last summer,” Biggs said. The fans were expecting big marquee signings and perhaps they were a bit disrespectful because he was free but his market value now would easily be £1 to £2 million.
“He has never been prolific, only scored just over 100 career goals, but what he has given as a link-up player alongside Billy Sharp with Mark Duffy behind them as the Number 10, has been exceptional.”
A recall under McCarthy is highly likely.
(Rotherham United — on loan from Brighton)
HE may have lost his way at Brighton, but the former Dundalk star has found his spiritual home in south Yorkshire and is starting to play regularly again alongside fellow Irish players Ryan Manning and Anthony Forde. Veteran midfielder Darren Porter is also at the New York Stadium.
Former Celtic junior Towell signed for then Championship side Brighton in November 2015 on the back of 25 league goals from 32 League of Ireland appearances for the champions.
But Chris Hughton, chasing promotion to the Premier League, was initially reluctant to unsettle his established team and throw him into the side, before Towell suffered a serious knee injury which ruled him out for three months.
Brighton’s eventual rise to the Premier League, and the influx of significant signings over the last two years, further hindered Towell’s first-team chances on the south coast. This loan spell at Rotherham is his second in two years. Rotherham are facing a long battle at the wrong end of the table in the second tier and Towell has scored two goals since his latest temporary move from Brighton.
Brighton striker Aaron Connolly will have a chance to grab the scouts’ attention if he can secure a loan move in January. The 18-year-old has scored five goals in his three Check a trade Trophy matches but needs regular first team football.
AIDEN McGEADY (Sunderland)
SUNDERLAND pressed the reset button after relegation to League One and McGe- ady, who was injured during the summer transfer window and missed out on an exit from the club, has done the same and thrived in a team winning games again under new manager Jack Ross.
Ross, a former defender with SPL experience, used to mark the young McGeady at Celtic. Or try to. He has certainly given the winger the same freedom he enjoyed in those early days and he has become an integral part of the Wearside revival with six goals in the last seven games.
McCarthy will have no hesitation recalling a player with McGeady’s experience and ability to prise open teams like Gibraltar and Georgia. McGeady’s last Ireland appearance was in the disastrous 5-1 home defeat to Denmark.
There are other options for the new Irish management team to consider, but not many. O’Neill and his scouts searched for eligible players to bolster the squad weakened by the international retirements of Robbie Keane, Shay Given, John O’Shea and Kevin Doyle.
Strikers like Hull City’s Will Keane and former Chelsea junior Patrick Bamford, who is now at Leeds, have yet to fully commit to the Irish cause and have both failed to make much impression on the Championship this season.
Bamford had yet to start at Elland Road and scored just one goal before breaking his leg in September and former Manchester United player Keane has been on the bench all season at Hull and scored just once for the club in 20 appearances.
Ronan Curtis’s excellent form at League One Portsmouth continues although his goal against Walsall last week was his first in eight since he was first called up by O’Neill for the Nations League campaign.
Elsewhere in League One, Rochdale defensive pair Joseph Rafferty and Ryan Delaney continue to get experience and acclaim and Brentford ’keeper Jack Bonham is enhancing his reputation at strugglers Bristol Rovers following on from his last season’s loan with Carlisle United in League Two.
The 25-year-old has been unable to displace Daniel Bentley at Griffin Park but his consistent form and six clean sheets this season have put him among the list of goalkeepers in line to be understudy to Darren Randolph. A familiar name to McCarthy is emerging at Walsall where Liam Kinsella, son of his former midfielder Mark, is having a good run of games at the moment. Kinsella, 22, can play in midfield or at full-back, and has already represented Ireland under 19s. He was born in Colchester. Kinsella’s Walsall team-mate Luke Leahy, 26, an ever-present at left-back, will be on the new set-up’s radar.
Two players returning from injury will also be closely monitored, providing they can get games. James McCarthy is making slow but good progress at Everton, although the fine form of Marco Silva’s side could hinder his first team chances between now and March. Jonny Hayes is also back from serious injury at Celtic but has failed to make regular starts under Brendan Rodgers over the last two months.
‘McCarthy also knows Doherty is good enough to be a long-term replacement at left-back for Stephen Ward’