By Graham Gillespie
Every time Ireland qualify for a major tournament a classic pub question that is no doubt discussed all around the country is who will be on the plane? Throughout the duration of Martin O’Neil’s tenure in charge of the Republic of Ireland, the names in the squad have by and large remained the same and the rigid nature of O’Neil’s selections suggests it will be extremely difficult for new players to snatch a ticket for that plane to France in June. Despite this there are most certainly some players who could give Martin O’Neil headaches when he sits down to choose the 23 men who will fly out to France and be based in Versailles. Here are 5 of the most likely players to be surprise members of the Irish squad at Euro 2016:
1. Richie Towell
For some League of Ireland supporters, Richie Towell’s omission from the Irish panel has become a symbol for the lack of confidence the national team setup has in Ireland’s top tier league. His goal scoring record from midfield in what would turn out to be his last season at Dundalk was nothing short of astonishing netting 25 times in 32 games. This was good enough for the former Celtic trainee to secure a moved to Brighton and Hove Albion in the Championship in November after winning the league and cup double with Dundalk. Having only become eligible to play for Brighton in January, Towell does not have much time to prove he can perform in England before the Euros. However if he is even half as prolific in front of goal for Brighton as he was in Ireland, he might well stand a chance of sneaking into the squad.
2. Alan Judge
From a player who rebuilt his career by going back to Ireland to a midfielder who never played in his native league, Alan Judge has been in the form of his career recently for Brentford in the Championship. In the early stages of his career he nomadically yo-yoed between playing for Blackburn Rovers, Notts County and Plymouth Argyle before moving to Brentford in 2014. Since this move he has become one of the west London club’s most important players and is regarded by many as the best Irish player outside of the Premier League. Like Towell, Judge has the handy habit of scoring from midfield and has 11 goals to his name already this season. This was enough to earn him a place in the preliminary squad for the crucial playoff games against Bosnia-Herzegovina but unfortunately he never made the match day squad and is still yet to have been given a cap for Ireland. If he makes the preliminary squad once more in the summer one presumes he will be doing everything in his power to not get cut again.
3. Chris Forrester
Although being less revered and receiving far less hype than Richie Towell, Chris Forrester made his move from the League of Ireland in the summer before Towell and has been prospering ever since. When the slender attacking midfielder made his move across the Irish Sea from St. Patricks Athletic to Peterborough United many questioned whether he would be up to the physical challenge of League One football, a criticism that has also been levelled at Wes Hoolahan at many points in his career. However like Hoolahan, Forrester has answered his critics excellently and has flourished since coming to “the Posh” by playing in a deeper role than he had previously. Peterborough United chairman Darragh MacAnthony has now described him as “priceless” along with comparing him to Michael Carrick. If Martin O’Neil is looking for a wildcard to light up Euro 2016 Forrester could be his man.
4. Rob Elliot
Newcastle United goalkeeper Rob Elliot acquired some good fortune when his club’s number one keeper Tim Krul sustained a bad knee injury allowing him to step into the Newcastle goal and it would definitely be fair to say he has taken his opportunity with both hands. The Greenwich born naturalised Irishman has strung together great performance after great performance and has looked consistently solid at a club where everything can be so chaotic. This steely solidness was epitomised in his heroic display in Newcastle 1-0 win over Bournemouth earlier this season. Elliot missed out on the Bosnia games due to injury but when one considers that Elliot is the only Irish goalkeeper playing week in week out in the Premier League, it is difficult to envisage an Irish squad without his name featuring.
5. Eunan O’Kane
Taking the path that James McClean had walked before him, Eunan O’Kane is a Derry native who declared to play for the Republic. Despite playing for Northern Ireland underage teams in his youth, O’Kane made the big switch at U-21 level and received a call up to the senior provisional squad for the play-offs last November. At club level, O’Kane has won silverware playing a part in Eddie Howe’s Championship winning Bournemouth team and has been quietly impressive whenever he has played for the Cherries this year in the Premier League at the heart of their midfield. Although not being a regular starter O’Kane will be hoping his cameos will be sufficient evidence to convince Martin O’Neil he should be in the Irish squad.