There might not be a tournament awaiting England’s senior men’s team this June, but it will be an active month for Roy Hodgson and his squad, with an intriguing friendly against the Republic of Ireland preceding a potentially thorny qualifier in Slovenia a week later. The current squad includes three players who could win their first caps, namely goalkeeper Tom Heaton and strikers Jamie Vardy and Charlie Austin. Hodgson has not been afraid to give in-form players their opportunity for England during his three years in charge, meaning that the Burnley, Leicester and QPR men can all feel reasonably confident of seeing action over the coming days, particularly in the Ireland friendly.
Walcott in a striker’s role?
One other interesting possibility of experimentation in Dublin is the positioning of a more established international, namely Theo Walcott. The 26-year-old Arsenal attacker was notably given a shot at centre-forward for last week’s FA Cup final ahead of more conventional target man Olivier Giroud and he was to repay Arsene Wenger’s faith, scoring the first of four Gunners goals at a crucial juncture at Wembley on a day when Walcott impressed. He comes into the Ireland and Slovenia games on the back of a good run which has also seen him plunder a well-taken equaliser at Old Trafford, raising the likelihood of him being tried in a number nine role alongside Wayne Rooney in a Three Lions shirt.
Walcott’s chances of playing up top rather than out wide for England have been boosted greatly, in an ironic twist, by a recent injury to club-mate Danny Welbeck, who in full fitness would have been a near-certainty to partner Rooney. Of course, Hodgson might also take a punt on Vardy or Austin from the start at the Aviva Stadium on Sunday afternoon, but Walcott’s recent displays, especially the one against Aston Villa, might encourage the manager to go with the Arsenal man. Certainly, if such an experiment was to be sampled, it would more likely happen in friendly action in Dublin than the competitive environs of Ljubljana, although it would be a surprise if at least one of the uncapped strikers does not get a debut at some stage over the coming fortnight.
Elsewhere, Heaton might have to settle for a second half runout given the magnificent form of Joe Hart, with Rob Green also on a firm footing despite QPR’s relegation. Gary Cahill and Nathaniel Clyne seem certain to start in defence, with the possibility of Ryan Bertrand also featuring from the first whistle after a fine season with Southampton. The identity of Cahill’s central defensive partner would most likely be Phil Jagielka, but don’t be surprised if either Phil Jones or Chris Smalling is preferred.
Hodgson has a diversity of midfield options from which to pick, with Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling looking the most likely to play from the start against Ireland, although the latter’s iffy form and unwelcome attitude towards his current employers might count against him. Their club-mates Adam Lallana and now James Milner should also be, at the very least, in strong contention to start, but the return to fitness of Jack Wilshere might see him being given the nod. After that, you still have Ross Barkley, Fabian Delph, Andros Townsend and Ryan Mason all pushing for a place in the team. The depth of midfield options could also add weight to the ‘Walcott up top’ theory.
Ireland’s probable starters
What of England’s opponents on Sunday? While Hodgson’s men already looked destined for next year’s European Championships and could easily deal with dropped points in Slovenia, Ireland face a critical two weeks, starting with this weekend’s friendly. The historical significance of this fixture has given this match a dynamic which usually isn’t present for non-competitive Ireland games, while it will be a very useful preparation for the main business of the European qualifier with Scotland a week later. Martin O’Neill’s side are embroiled in a fierce battle for a top three finish in Group D, with the Scots also involved in that tussle, and after dropping points to Scotland and Poland in their most recent qualifiers, the Irish know that nothing less than a win will do against Gordon Strachan’s charges.
In their last outing against the Poles in March, veteran goalkeeper Shay Given was recalled to the team, having retired from international football after Euro 2012, and despite Aston Villa’s FA Cup final mauling, he enhanced his reputation at Wembley last week and surely ought to start this Sunday. Ireland’s back four will likely consist of Everton’s Seamus Coleman, Sunderland captain John O’Shea, Richard Keogh and Stoke’s Marc Wilson. Ipswich man Alex Pearce could also be in contention to start alongside O’Shea at centre-back. Ireland’s midfield, like that of England, is less clear-cut. Aiden McGeady and James McClean have been the first-choice wingers, but with neither performing well of late, O’Neill could lean towards the more in-form David Meyler and Robbie Brady. Although they both suffered relegation with Hull, they were among the Tigers’ best performers in their unsuccessful bid to beat the drop. Jonathan Walters is another man in contention for the wide positions after a fairly solid year with Stoke. James McCarthy of Everton and Stoke’s Glenn Whelan will probably be the two in central midfield, although the door could be open for Bournemouth’s Harry Arter to make his debut.
Wes Hoolahan, who impressed for Norwich as they returned to the Premier League via the play-offs, should be given the nod to start in a ‘number 10’ role behind the lone striker, which I suspect will be Shane Long, scorer of a sublime goal past international team-mate Given in club action three weeks ago. Robbie Keane’s outstanding goal ratio in an Ireland shirt could see him being preferred by O’Neill, but if the ex-Sunderland boss picks his team on form, Long will be on from the start.
Speaking of players in form, one man who was widely touted to make his international bow in this fixture is Aston Villa youngster Jack Grealish, but he was overlooked by O’Neill and could still commit his future to either of the two nations in action at the Aviva Stadium. The teenager’s stock took a hit, though, following the FA Cup final, where he looked a pale shadow of the hugely promising midfielder who had stood out in Villa’s strong finish to the season. Grealish has been resident in Birmingham since birth, but his Irish ancestry makes him eligible for the Boys in Green, and he was widely expected to be included in the Ireland squad for this month’s fixtures. The 19-year-old is understood to be undecided on the nation of his allegiance and it is rather understandable if he did not wish to commit to one country or the other for Sunday’s match. The matter will certainly do the rounds in Irish media again, though, for O’Neill’s next squad when it is named in August.
Plenty of history
This will be the second meeting between England and Ireland in just over two years, with the teams’ most recent clash ending in a 1-1 draw at Wembley in May 2013. Shane Long had given the visitors an early lead before Frank Lampard equalised midway through the first half. That had been the first meeting between the countries in 18 years, when a friendly at the old Lansdowne Road venue entered the history books for all the wrong reasons. David Kelly’s 21st-minute goal had put Ireland in front, but just six minutes later the match was abandoned after spectators among England’s travelling support ripped up seats and wreaked general havoc. Sunday’s meeting will be the first time the English men’s senior team has played in Ireland since that horrendous night in February 1995.
If England emerge victorious at the Aviva Stadium, it will be their first win over Ireland in 30 years. The Irish famously beat England in their first ever match at a major tournament, the Euro 1988 meeting in Stuttgart, while the English also provided the opposition for Ireland’s World Cup debut two years later in a 1-1 draw in Cagliari. That was also the final score in both matches between the teams in qualification for Euro 1992, a tournament which England reached but Ireland narrowly missed.
The FIFA world rankings, and the probable starting line-ups, would make England favourites for the match in Dublin, but Ireland require no extra motivation to get one over on their neighbours and a win would provide a huge spur in confidence ahead of the vital qualifier against Scotland six days later. Hopefully the action on the field will provide the main talking point when Sunday’s match comes to a conclusion – the vastly improved relations between the countries since the mid-1990s should make that all the more likely. This Irish writer will no doubt love to see a home win, but with my objective hat on, I’m predicting yet another 1-1 draw between two teams that are probably more closely matched than many would expect.