The Emerging Fringe
It was well documented that Ireland had the oldest average aged squad competing at Euro 2016.
There is likely to be a transitioning in personnel over the coming months as the squad evolves post-Euro 2016. This will be necessitated due to a number of retirements (Given, Keane) but also by the phasing out of some older players (Hoolohan, O’Shea, Murphy, Walters, Whelan etc) who may not, in all likelihood, make it to Russia if we qualify. And unfortunately, those, whose careers seem to be on the slide (Gibson and McGeady come to mind).
Despite the pessimistic analysis of the age profile of our squad, there are a number of emerging younger talents, that may develop over the next 12 months to approach the required level.
Ahead of the friendly against Oman and the forthcoming World Cup qualification campaign, we take a look at some of the players with the potential to graduate into the senior squad over the next 12 months.
It must be mentioned that there are players on this list that we have not seen enough of to assess with any authority so we’ve based some of these profiles on feedback and the spurious opinions of others !
Rob Elliot, Alan Judge, Harry Arter and Eunan O'Kane were not considered for this list given how closely they were in contention for the Euro 2016 squad.
These are players we feel might be candidates for the final 23 man squads rather than those 33/40-man squads that O'Neill so loves.
John Egan (23, Brentford, CB)
Last season whilst at Gillingham, Egan was selected in the League One Team of the Year. After two very successful years at the club he moved up a division to Brentford this summer.
With a father who won 6 All-Irelands with Kerry and a mother with a League of Ireland medal, the guy has sporting pedigree. He's a natural leader who loves defending but is also comfortable on the ball, a good season could see him renew acquaintances with Martin O'Neill, who managed him at Sunderland.
Eoghan O’Connell (21, Celtic, CB)
Like Egan above, O'Connell is another centre back hailing from Cork, where he impressed all in his brief loan spell at Cork City earlier this year. Very big, mobile and a very comfortable footballer, O'Connell exudes personality. Has made a good return to Celtic, having broken into the first team and played in the Champions League qualifying matches. Brendan Rogers (admittedly not a stranger to the occasional hyperbolic remark) has been gushing in his praise of O'Connell who caught the attention of many click-bait sites with a goal of outstanding technique against Leicester this pre-season.
He faces tough competition for places at Celtic so any potential international progression will depend on how he fares in this regard.
Greg Cunningham (25, Preston, LB)
Cunningham is unlike most in this list, as he has already broken into the senior squad, earning 4 caps under Trap as a 19 year old. However, such has been been his struggle with injuries and slide down the divisions in the past few years, Cunningham could be said to be experiencing a Second Coming of sorts. With an accomplished left foot Cunningham is a natural left back, a position we lack depth in.
In May he was given the Player of the Year award after his first season at Preston and was called into the Martin O'Neill's preliminary squad for the pre-Euro 2016 friendlies.
Matt Doherty (24, Wolves, LB)
While naturally a right back, ex-Bohs player Doherty was mainly used at left back by Wolves last season. This move has not curbed Doherty's attacking contribution, with his attacking forays earning him many plaudits over the course of the season.
Such was the ease at which he adapted to his move to left back last season he received the Wolves Player of the Year award and a call-up to the Irish 40-man squad for the pre-Euro 2016 friendlies.
Alan Browne (21, Preston, CM)
Browne broke into the Preston first team as an 18 year old, within 3 months of signing for the club from Cork City. He has attracted a lot of attention and rumoured to be on the scouting list of a few Premier League clubs.
For what it's worth, Noel King the U-21's manager is a huge fan of his and has made him a central component of his side for whom he was awarded Player of the Year for the 2015/16 season.
Very mobile, with a high work rate, combative and a crisp clean tackler, Browne is arguably unique enough to complement the plethora of technical creative midfielders (yes, really) that seem to be emerging from our ranks. O'Neill is already aware of him, having invited Browne to train with the senior squad for the Switzerland and Slovakia pre-Euro 2016 friendlies, however injury denied him of the opportunity.
Chris Forrester (23, Peterborough, CM)
Forrester has long been familiar to any viewer of the League of Ireland over the past few seasons, where he scored a litany of Goal of the Season contenders for St Pats.
There were stages in his final season at Inchicore that he seemed to be coasting along so, aged 22, the move cross channel probably came at the optimum stage of his personal and professional life.
With 4 solid seasons of LOI football behind him, he really hit the ground running at Peterborough. He instantly became a central figure in their team, both figuratively and positionally. The move from left wing to deep lying midfielder appears perfectly suited to his natural technical ability and athleticism.
Such was the progress in his first season that he was voted Players Player of the Year and made club captain by Peterborough, who are hoping to keep onto him despite the multitude of bigger clubs apparently seeking to sign him.
Having already made O'Neill's preliminary 40 man squad for the pre-Euro 2016 friendlies, he is likely to be in consideration when the World Cup qualification squad announcements roll around.
Jack Byrne (20, Blackburn, AM)
A hugely hyped (not least by himself) name on this list, Jack Byrne seems to have all the attributes to become a key player for us over the next decade. Hailing from the same footballing school, St Kevin's Boys, as Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick, he appears to be blessed with top notch technique and sharp footballing brain.
Following an apparently very successful season with Cambuur in the Eredivisie behind him that involved some eye catching goals Byrne has joined Blackburn on loan for the season.
Slight of build and egotistical, a year of Championship football might represent the appropriate type of challenge he needs to progress his development. In Owen Coyle he has a manager who may show enough belief in him to play him in the centre of midfield. Lets hope Blackburn are not struggling at the lower end of the Championship table.
Conor Hourihane (25, Barnsley, CM)
Hourihane starred in and captained Barnsley promotion from League One last season. A mobile and pro-active central midfielder with a cultured left foot, he has adapted extremely well to life in the Championship with two goals and three assists in his first three games. Roy Keane is very familiar with his qualities having signed him both at Sunderland and Ipswich.
Callum O’Dowda (21, Bristol City, AM)
As he made his debut against Belarus in Turners Cross this May, you could be forgiven for thinking O'Dowda was a high profile young talent at a top Premier League club, such was the comfort and confidence with which he took to senior international football. Having outshone Jack Byrne for the U-21 team Martin O'Neill was suitably impressed enough to throw this League Two player into a game that was essentially a final trial for those hoping to make the Euro 2016 squad.
O'Dowda, a rangey left footer, who is capable of playing on either wing, looked totally at ease on his debut on the left of a three man midfield.
This exposure no doubt contributed to his summer move to Bristol City. The jump up two divisions hasn't seemed to faze O'Dowda and he produced a Man of the Match performance on his debut for Bristol against Wigan.
With Aiden McGeady's career seemingly on the wane, O'Dowda, despite being a different type of wide player, could be the man to replace him and offer a wide option that we seem to have less of at the moment.
Daryl Horgan (24, Dundalk, LW)
The standout player in the League of Ireland this season and central to Dundalk's progress in Europe, Horgan can well be considered a player with international credentials. Whether that can occur at Dundalk or whether a move abroad is required first, remains to be seen.
A move to the Championship is the most likely destination. However, this will not match the exposure to opposition of the calibre of BATE Borisov and Legia Warsaw that Dundalk's European sojourn has brought him so far this season.
Perhaps, there is a lesson to be learned from the differing transfer routes taken by two other players in this piece last season. Richie Towell, a player, as an attacking central midfielder, used to his team revolving around him, moved to top of the Championship club Brighton mid-season. Contrastingly, Chris Forrester moved to a lesser club who actually did build their team around him. One has flourished, the other floundered.
A good European campaign for Horgan, with more of the wing trickery he displayed against BATE may well force Martin O'Neill's hand to giving the League of Ireland player an international call-up.
Scott Hogan (24, Brentford, CF)
Hogan is somewhat of an unknown quantity, having spent most of his career in non-league football. Having signed for Brentford in 2014, after one season at Rochdale where he scored 19 in 40 matches, he was injured for almost a season and a half, finally breaking into the first team in March this year. He finished the season scoring 7 goals in 7 games and was awarded the Championship Player of the Month for April 2016.
While his inclusion in this piece may appear to have internet hype written all over it, such is the paucity of youthful striking options available to Martin O'Neill that Hogan may be a more realistic option than his career CV would otherwise suggest. Admittedly, he is equally as likely to fade into lower league obscurity.
Olamide Shodipo (19, QPR, LW) - huge praise being handed out to the teenage winger who is comfortable on either flank. A big future awaits.
Darragh Lenihan (22, Blackburn, CM)- made great progress last year as a midfielder for Blackburn and Ireland's U-21's.
Richie Towell (25, Brighton, AM) - his English career has yet to take off but a great talent remains.
Josh Cullen (20, Bradford, CM) - well rated by West Ham and played in first team pre-season, sent on loan to Bradford.
Patrick McEleney (23, Dundalk, AM) – was close to moving to Peterborough last season but they chose Forrester instead because of injury concerns. Superb talent who has excelled of late for Dundalk.
Brian Lenihan (22, Hull, RB) - similar to Towell, with injuries behind him, a big year ahead.
Tommie Hoban (22, Watford, CB) – terrible luck with injuries last season, remains a highly rated centre back at Watford.