COMMENT By Ryan Kelly
As he made his way through the mixed zone after the Republic of Ireland’s crucial Euro 2016 qualifying victory over Georgia, Aiden McGeady cut a forlorn figure.
In the reverse fixture a year earlier, he had been Ireland's saviour, but this time, he played no part in the 1-0 win, watching on instead from the bench for 90 minutes. He seemed to take little solace from the result as he quietly made his way past gathered journalists towards the team bus.
It was a disappointing week for the 29-year-old. His cameo from the bench against Gibraltar a number of days earlier in Faro was uninspiring and his frustration was summed up in one embarrassingly woeful shot, which he sliced harmlessly wide not long after his introduction.
Following the international break, McGeady returned to Everton, where his nightmare continued as he failed to make the matchday squad for the hotly anticipated game against Chelsea at Goodison Park, which Roberton Martinez's side eventually won 3-1.
He has not featured in any of Everton’s five Premier League games this season and his only competitive appearance came in the League Cup against Barnsley where he was replaced at half-time by promising ex-Barcelona youth Gerard Deulofeu.
McGeady’s absence is, in part, down to a troublesome hamstring injury he has been carrying, but, even when fit the former Spartak Moscow midfielder has failed to live up to expectations in England’s top flight since his transfer from Russia in January 2014. As such, his place in the Ireland squad is surely under severe threat as Martin O’Neill mulls over his next move ahead of crunch clashes against Germany and Poland.
Ireland assistant Roy Keane issued an ominous warning to the likes of McGeady and his Everton team-mate Darron Gibson when the squad met up at the beginning of September.
"We've said it before, we always want our players to be playing regularly. But [McGeady] is at a good club in Everton," Keane told reporters. "Aiden's just got to knuckle down to try to get into Everton's first team which is never easy because they've got a lot of quality players.
"It's up to Aiden to play regular football because that's the problem for us.
"I've said it before - players turn up for international week when they're not playing week-in, week-out and it does catch up with you eventually."
Over the course of two seasons, McGeady made 32 Premier League appearances for Everton, 18 of which came from the bench, and he found the net on one occasion – the opening goal in last season’s curtain-raiser against Leicester City.
With zero Premier League minutes under his belt in 2015-16 and his place in the Everton team becoming increasingly doubtful, it would not come as a surprise if O’Neill looks elsewhere for options in the attacking third when he announces his provisional squad on Thursday.
Indeed, as noted by Keane, having players fully match-fit and confident is the ideal scenario for the Ireland boss as he and his side welcome the world champions to the Aviva Stadium on October 8 before wrapping up Group D in Poland three days later.
Giovanni Trapattoni used to chastise Darron Gibson about his lack of game time at Manchester United and urged the midfielder to seek a move elsewhere in order to boost his Ireland chances. Initially, Gibson scoffed at the notion, but his subsequent transfer to Everton did wonders for his confidence before he was unfortunately stricken by injury after injury.
Of course, McGeady is not the only player in the Ireland squad struggling for game-time, but he is one of the most high profile and he is the kind of player O'Neill wants to be able to rely on. He cannot do this if McGeady is not playing.
It must be said that, despite his fluctuating club form, McGeady has shown that he can still come up with the goods when Ireland need inspiration, but he is wearyingly inconsistent. Nevertheless, O’Neill is unlikely to exclude the player whose two absolutely stunning goals clinched a vital victory against Georgia in Tblisi last September.
However, it would be an enormous gamble, as well as a slight to those performing regularly at the highest levels, to persevere with a player who has just one competitive hour on the pitch to his name this season, especially in a series of high-stakes games destined to be played out at a high intensity.
The suspension of West Bromwich Albion’s James McClean and experienced campaigner Glenn Whelan makes the case for McGeady’s inclusion in the squad more compelling - after all, he's closing in on 80 caps - but such conservatism would deny the various alternatives a chance to step up.
The emergence of Jeff Hendrick has given Ireland a genuine option in midfield and his brilliant assist for Jon Walters against Georgia will live long in the memory of Irish supporters and, indeed, Martin O’Neill.
The 23-year-old has been battling away for Derby County in the Championship for a number of years now and the minutes he has clocked up have helped mould him into the player he is today.
With the Boys in Green boss adopting a more narrow, 4-4-2 diamond formation, the need for a wide player like McGeady is less of a priority and the central players such as Hendrick and Wes Hoolahan, who is impressing for Norwich City, should be allowed to carry their confidence onto the field at the Aviva.
Eunan O’Kane was cut from O’Neill’s final panel ahead of the Gibraltar and Georgia games, but, unlike McGeady, the Derry native is a regular in the Premier League and should be in the squad. Unfortunately, his inexperience at senior international level will probably work against him.
Regardless, one thing is clear: if McGeady wishes to hold off the challenge of young pretenders like O’Kane and Hendrick and ensure his standing in the Irish squad in the final Euro 2016 qualification run-in, he will have to find a solution to his current predicament and secure a move away from Goodison Park.
Temporarily, a loan move, even if it meant a drop down to the Championship, would be just the tonic.
Just as Shay Given’s brief stint at Middlesbrough rejuvenated the veteran goalkeeper and catapulted him back into the reckoning, McGeady must act now, or he will soon find his lack of game time really catching up with him.