Future looks bleak as Ireland approach the end of an era

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Martin O'Neill's men scraped through to the final stage of the European Championship, but it could well be their last due to a dearth of talent


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Sweden 4-1 Republic of Ireland, June 2016. Just over a week before the Boys in Green kick off their Euro 2016 campaign against Zlatan Ibrahimovic and company, their Under-18 equivalents were being humbled at a much less lauded international tournament.

A 4-1 thrashing in the European Championship opener for Martin O'Neill's men would come as a shock, but at under-age level, this type of scoreline is all too familiar. After facing Sweden and Belgium, O'Neill's senior side finish their Group E schedule against Italy, whose Under-21s defeated the Boys in Green 4-1 in March.

Four years ago, Irish fans headed to Euro 2012 filled with optimism that their side could cause some upsets, but after equalling the record for the worst group stage performance with three heavy defeats in Poland and Ukraine, the atmosphere is more cautious this time around.

It is clear that O'Neill does not have an array of talent, and is doing the best job possible with the players at his disposal - aged workhorses and lower league battlers.

Unlike some of the other smaller nations at the tournament, there is no star man for the Republic of Ireland. Wales have Gareth Bale, Switzerland can look to Granit Xhaka, but Ireland's blossoming talent, on whose shoulders the weight of a nation lies, is Shane Long.

The Southampton striker is coming off his best league season, earning interest from Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool in the process, but is already 29-years-old - a full decade older than many of the players tipped to be stars of the tournament.

Although he's looked upon as the hero of qualifying, thanks to a splendid winner against World Cup holders Germany, Long does not have an impressive international pedigree. He did not score his second competitive goal for Ireland until 2015, and 12 of his 16 international goals have come in friendlies.

Euro 2016 could be a huge tournament for the Tipperary native, but time is not on his side if he wishes to repeat the feat.

Repeating the feat is something Ireland will struggle to do. O'Neill has agreed to stay on as manager after the tournament, but while the former Leicester City boss shall remain in the dugout, many of his stalwarts are likely to hang up their boots.

Wes Hoolahan, the man who adds spark to an otherwise regimented side, has just turned 34, while Glenn Whelan and Jon Walters are both just two years younger.

Ireland have one of the oldest squads travelling to Euro 2016, with a 40-year-old goalkeeper in Shay Given, a 35-year-old captain in Robbie Keane, and an average age of 30.2. Full-back Cyrus Christie is the youngest player in the panel at 23, but Robbie Brady, Shane Duffy, and Jeff Hendrick at 24, bring the overall age of the squad down.

However, unlike other teams, there are no star players emerging to take the places of the veterans who are approaching retirement. The only debutant from May's friendly internationals was Callum O'Dowda, a 21-year-old winger who most recently played in League Two, the English fourth tier. The Oxford United attacker's brief cameo won rave reviews, but there are not many others like him set to emerge, despite the declarations from Ireland U21 boss Noel King.


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"There's a lot of talent coming down the road," King told RTE Radio

"Maybe not at the age of Callum, but at younger ages, there's plenty of players over in England with potential. Take Josh Cullen, who has played for West Ham this year. He's only 19, he's one for the future. You have Alan Browne with him. There are players out there. We have no Messis. We don't have players who'll come through to the top four teams."

As manager of the supposed next generation of Ireland players, could King really have said anything else? He has to look after his own interests as well as the nation's, and cannot be seen to admit the truth - there is a huge shortage of talent good enough to make it through to the senior setup, and this is endemic throughout the Ireland underage squads.

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Under King, Ireland's U-21s have never qualified for the European Championship, and in the 2015 qualifying campaign, won just two of eight games. Once a player turns 22, they will likely never pull on a green jersey again.

The younger age groups fare slightly better, but Brian Kerr's 1998 U-18 European champions are a long gone memory. The U-19 panel reached the semi-final in 2011, but have not qualified in the five years since, while the U-17s appearance at the 2015 finals saw them exit the group stage after failing to score a goal. In fact, the 2015 qualification was the first time that age group had gotten as far in seven years.

Euro 2016 is the second time in a row that Ireland have reached the European Championship, but with no players knocking on the door of the senior squad, it will likely be their last for a long time. Irish fans should enjoy every minute of the experience in France this summer. They will not be back again any time soon.

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