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From Villan to hero? It’s not too late for O’Neill’s prodigal son

Extra.ie logo Extra.ie 14/02/2018 Philip Quinn
Jack Grealish © Getty Jack Grealish

For Republic of Ireland fans of a certain vintage, there will always be a certain affection directed towards Aston Villa.

a man playing a game of football © Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland In the 1994 World Cup finals, four Villans back-boned the Irish team, with the peerless Paul McGrath in defence alongside Steve Staunton, plus Ray Houghton and Andy Townsend in midfield, with the latter as skipper.

© Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland Curiously, those four internationals in the USA were the only ones in which this Fab Four played together while on Villa’s books. I was reminded of the strong Villa connection with Irish football on Sunday last when they played Birmingham City in the Second City derby at a throbbing Villa Park.

a man holding a football ball © Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland The Villa starting XI included Conor Hourihane and Scott Hogan, both very much in Martin O’Neill’s thoughts for the UEFA Nations League and Euro 2020 qualifiers, as well as Jack Grealish, who would have been, had he not ditched Ireland.

Darren Randolph wearing a football uniform © Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland Glenn Whelan, too, was on the Villa bench and made a late cameo as substitute. A further Irish angle was provided by Steve Bruce, the Villa manager, who turned down an offer from Jack Charlton to play for Ireland in the ’94 World Cup.

a man with a football ball © Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland Villa were vibrant and fair value for their 2-0 victory, which saw Grealish initiate the first goal and Hourihane score a cracking second. The former’s defection from the Ireland ranks still jars with O’Neill, who encouraged him to stay, for he recognised the guile of the Brummie, and his potential.

a person with a football ball © Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland Had he remained, Grealish would be the No1 candidate to succeed Wes Hoolahan as a creative midfield hub. Who knows, he may yet have second thoughts, for he is still eligible and O’Neill can’t afford to be choosy. If the Ireland manager needed confirmation of the rebuilding work confronting him, it was certainly rammed home over the weekend.

a crowd of people watching a football game © Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland Of the 14 players he used against Denmark in Dublin, only three started, Darren Randolph (Middlesbrough), Shane Duffy (Brighton) and Jeff Hendrick (Burnley).

a man standing in front of a building © Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland While Daryl Murphy and Hoolahan have retired from international duty, and injuries account for Robbie Brady (long-term) and Ciaran Clark (short-term), the lack of first team involvement for O’Neill’s other front-line players is alarming.

a blurry image of a man with a football ball © Provided by Associated Newspapers (Ireland) Limited, t/a dmg Media Ireland It explains why he will energise his squad for the trip to Turkey next month to ensure he has all bases covered in time for the Nations League opener on September 6 in Wales.

Declan Rice (West Ham), Keith Long (Burnley), Hogan (Aston Villa), Hourihane (Aston Villa), Callum O’Dowda (Bristol City) and Sean Maguire (Preston), if fit, can expect the call.

While Rice has earned fine reviews this season, the Villa duo also appear ripe for promotion – if only they could bring Grealish with them.

Might be worth another phone call.

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