Republic and North to face each other in closed-doors friendly
Normally, a behind-closed door international Football game means that there’s been some miscreants who were up to no good at a prior match. It’s very rare that two teams choose to purposely play a game away from paying spectators, television and the prying eyes of the media.
So it was with great curiosity that Ireland and Northern Ireland decided to do just that, arranging a behind closed doors friendly at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Thursday 4th June.
Any player who takes part won’t receive an international cap for turning out in a game which is four days before Ireland’s friendly with England, and ten days ahead of Martin O’Neill’s charges crucial Euro 2016 qualifier with Scotland in Dublin.
Whilst on the outside, it seems like a curious manoeuvre, there is method in the madness as both the Republic and Northern Ireland aim to qualify in order to appear together at the same tournament for the first time.
For the likes of the Republic, their squad tends to contain a mixture of Premier League and Championship players. Whilst those in the Premier League will finish their season on May 24th, anyone in the Championship will have played their last game on May 2nd – save for those who are on play-off duty.
So after almost a month without football – and one will think the obligatory Footballer holiday to Dubai or Las Vegas – the game will prove to be a good run out for those players, or those Premier League players who have spent more time warming the bench than playing recently.
Speaking about the decision, Ireland Manager, Martin O’Neill, said: “Holding the match behind closed doors will give us the flexibility to make any changes we see fit ahead of the European qualifiers on 13 June.
“It represents an ideal opportunity to build the intensity of our preparations, leading into the England friendly, and before the important qualifier against Scotland.”
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill said: “It was important for us to get a quality game before the EURO 2016 qualifier against Romania at home and this game provides the perfect scenario on the back of the Qatar friendly.
“Having the game behind closed doors will allow both myself and Martin flexibility which we wouldn’t have under normal international circumstances and it will also help greatly in terms of our preparations for the important qualifier against Romania the following weekend.”
For Northern Ireland, qualification for the European Championships would be their first appearance at a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Whilst for Ireland, it’s only four years since their ill-fated appearance at Euro 2012 when they folded like a wet lettuce and went home with their metaphorical tail between their legs after a poor showing.
Speaking last month, O’Neill believes that should lose to Scotland in the Euro qualifying tie at the Aviva Stadium on June 13th it will give Ireland a real uphill struggle to make the tournament in France.
The Boys in Green are fourth in Group D, two points behind third-place Scotland and Germany, with Poland leading the way on 11 points. Since the defeat to Scotland, Ireland drew against Poland thanks to an injury time equaliser from Shane Long, which has ramped up the pressure on the fixture next month in front of a sell-out crowd.
O’Neill said: “It’s a very, very important game. I think we’re sitting there two points behind them halfway through the campaign. You win that game, you go in front; lose it and it’s a long way back.”
The former Celtic manager’s current contract runs until the end of the campaign and he admitted that failure to qualify for what would be Ireland’s third European Championship would make him question whether or not to continue.
“If we went out with a whimper in this competition I’d have to have a look at myself. But if we perform and show what we’re capable of doing, showing the drive and determination that we showed there against Poland and, in fairness, for most of the qualifying campaign then I would certainly have a look at it.”
Ahead of the trio of games, it’s a tale of two Aston Villa players for O’Neill as to whether either of them will take part in them, one through fitness, the other potentially through choice.
Defender Ciaran Clark faces a race against time to be fit after Aston Villa manager Tim Sherwood revealed that a medial ligament injury suffered against Tottenham Hotspur at the start of April will keep the 25-year-old out of the Premier League run-in and FA Cup final.
Sherwood said: “It’s a real blow for Ciaran but that’s the nature of the game – when you’re in there, there’s a chance of getting injured. He’s certainly one that doesn’t hold back and puts his body on the line. Unfortunately, he’s caught one there and we’ll see him next season.”
Tim Sherwood also had an opinion regarding the international future of Villa midfielder, Jack Grealish. The 19-year-old Brummie was the star of the show as Villa defeated Liverpool to seal a place in their first FA Cup final since 2001 and has turned out for Ireland’s under-21 team on six occasions so far, and intends on doing so again against Andorra on September 8th as confirmed by his father.
Grealish senior said: “Jack will ultimately make the decision on his international future but nothing has changed for him since he made that statement last month. It must be remembered that Jack only recently broke into the Villa first-team, so his sole focus is on keeping his place, helping the club avoid relegation and hopefully playing in the FA Cup final on May 30.”
However, it’s common knowledge that the English FA have been monitoring the situation with Grealish as, despite turning out for Ireland at youth level, he hasn’t played a game at senior level so could switch allegiances to England.
Sherwood said: “It is up to Jack where he wants to go. It is purely up to him. What I have got to do is make sure he has got that decision to make. He must be doing something right for Aston Villa if he has got those options. That is my priority.
“I had the same situation with Nabil Bentaleb, who could have played for France but decided to pick Algeria. I did have a chat with him and he asked me what to do. I just said, ‘you’ve got to go with your heart. Do you think you’re French or Algerian?’
“That’s the decision he had to make and now Jack has got to make that decision. He has to play a few more times for Aston Villa before he needs to make that decision.”
O’Neill could well force the hand of Grealish by offering him a call-up to the senior squad, however, as it stands, he feels that this will come too soon for him. In international terms, Grealish is still very young and is still trying to establish himself a regular berth in the Villa starting line-up, having only started seven games this season, albeit with 13 appearances off the bench.
Also definitely out of these June fixtures is Blackburn Rovers defender, Shane Duffy, who suffered a serious knee injury back in February which required surgery which subsequently curtailed his season for the Championship club and doubts remain over Everton’s Darron Gibson who suffered a foot injury for the Toffees last month.