The fact it was a 21-year-old Liverpool player who has never made a Premier League appearance who scored the winner against Martin O’Neill’s beleaguered team at the Aviva should be the ultimate wake-up call for the Republic at a time when they are so desperate for new beginnings.
Harry Wilson, who plays on loan in the English Championship at Derby, provided a wonderful free-kick to justify his manager Ryan Giggs’ faith in youth and leave Irish fans asking why their own more experienced leader hasn’t taken the same path.
Finding the kind of vibrant, exciting talent that can rip international defences to shreds is not easy, especially when so few Irish players ply their trade in the Premier League these days.
However, Wales have shown under Giggs, and England under Gareth Southgate, that looking to the future by introducing youth into the squad can reap dividends and create an atmosphere of hope for the future. Oh, how the Boys in Green need that hope after this depressing night.
The England team who recorded a memorable 3-2 win over Spain in Seville on Monday had an average age of just 23, and their squad at the World Cup was the youngest in the tournament at just 26.
By contrast, the Republic’s team against Wales for this UEFA Nations tie, at a time when the country is crying out for something new, had an average age 27.5. That’s the age at which a squad should be at its peak, not at the beginning of a journey which had only just begun with a belligerent if uninspiring goalless draw against Denmark at the weekend.
The one bright spark on a difficult night was Preston forward Callum Robinson, who is only 23 and who was chosen here to try and add creativity to the mix, but O’Neill needs that youthful energy and spark in every area of the pitch.
The problem, of course, is that, with so few first team regulars in the top flight, Ireland need to look either to lower divisions or to U23 teams to find new heroes; and that goes against the old-school adage that international football must be a reward for first team excellence and nothing else.
England, however, have had success by trusting in players who have performed well at U21, U20 and U19 level, even if they have subsequently struggled to make an impact in the Premier League; and Wales, under Giggs, have been even more progressive, bringing in a long list of young players. So, with star men Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey missing in Dublin, it was young Wilson and fellow forwards Tyler Roberts, 19, and David Brooks, 21, who made the difference.
Surely, now is the time for O’Neill, if he can hang onto his post, to follow suit and look beyond the obvious for the talent injection his squad so desperately needs?
He could do well by starting at Wilson’s parent club, Liverpool, where there appears to be a wealth of young talent to select from, and not just for England and Wales. Defender Corey Whelan, for instance, has done well on loan at Crewe at the age of 20 this season (and has also captained Liverpool’s U23s), while commanding centre-half Conor Masterson is back from injury and 19-year-old goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher already trains with the first team.
If it’s goals that O’Neill is after — and, boy, it should be — then Dubliner Glen McAuley has been a prolific scorer at Anfield, hitting 16 for the U23s last season and 15 the year before. He’s only 18 and he is inexperienced, but Wales goalscorer Wilson is just 21 and already has six full caps and two goals, while Woodburn is 19 and has played eight times for his country.
Even outside of Anfield there are options. Southampton striker Jonathan Afolabi has the kind of pace out wide which might make him worth a gamble (he is still eligible for Nigeria until O’Neill makes his move) and his Saints teammates Michael Obafemi and Thomas O’Connor have impressed at U19 level. All three have signed professional contracts this year.
Manchester United’s ball-playing defender Lee O’Connor, just 18, West Ham midfielder Conor Coventry (the club’s academy player of the year last season) and defender Josh Cullen, as well as Wolves’ Conor Ronan, are waiting for a call, while teenager Jordan McEneff has just signed a pro contract at Arsenal at the age of 17.
Want to be even braver? Then look further afield at Ryan Nolan, a cultured centre half making big strides with Inter Milan, but who could also be called up by Spain if the Republic don’t move quickly.
Whatever happens, O’Neill needs to make big changes and cast his net wider.
Republic legend Phil Babb summed it up by saying: “Where is our quality? I just don’t think we have got it, even to compete against 18 and 19-year-olds.”
By Chris Hatherall – Irish Examiner