1. Shane Long
(Clint Hughes/PA Wire/Press Association Images)
THE IRISH STRIKER drew much acclaim for his recent goal-scoring performance for his country against England. It followed an intermittently impressive season for his club last year in which he was playing well enough at one stage to be linked with a move to Liverpool. However, there is still a sense that the forward is not quite worthy of comparison with the league’s top strikers as of yet. 16 goals in 63 league appearances for the Baggies is decent, but could be improved upon. If, as rumours suggest, Romelu Lukaku stays at Chelsea this season, more responsibility and (presumably) more game time will be afforded to Long. At 26, it’s important that the Tipperary native establishes himself as the club’s main man, though the arrival of Nicholas Anelka could potentially hamper this ambition.
Ideal scenario: He makes himself un-droppable by scoring consistently.
Worst-case scenario: He kills off all hope of a future move to a big club by once again failing to start consistently enough.
2. Stephen Kelly
(Clive Gee/PA Wire/Press Association Images)
While he may not be an automatic starter for Ireland, Kelly remains a useful squad player for Trap, which is why it’s vital his club form is continually strong. Capable of playing anywhere in defence, should Marc Wilson or Seamus Coleman fall victim to injury, Kelly would be a suitable replacement for either. Having failed to start consistently for Fulham, Reading have shown a greater willingness to play him regularly. Trap recently demonstrated that he still has faith in the player, handing him the captaincy for the final half an hour of Ireland’s recent friendly with Spain, however Kelly will be eager to return to the Premier League as soon as possible to ensure he remains in the Italian’s good books.
Ideal scenario: He starts most games and helps Reading get promoted.
Worst-case scenario: He gets dropped from the first team.
3. Kevin Doyle
(Nick Potts/PA Archive/Press Association Images)
If Doyle hopes to retain his starting place in the Irish team, then surely he needs to be playing at a higher level than League One. At 29, he should be at the peak of his career, though instead, it is in danger of petering out. Despite often standing out for Ireland and invariably performing the type of selfless work up front that goes largely unseen, the criticism persists that he simply does not score enough for a striker. 30 goals in 148 appearances, including just nine in the league last year, emphasises this failing. Yet Doyle has long been linked with a move to Celtic, and it is conceivable that the striker could rediscover his touch playing for a team, such as the Scottish champions, in which goalscoring opportunities will inevitably be easier to come by. Irish fans, in particular, will hope this happens, given that Trap’s squad isn’t exactly blessed with attacking talent. And should he secure such a big move, the former Reading man could once again regain his status as an automatic starter for Ireland.
Ideal scenario: He moves to Celtic, scoring and playing regularly thereafter.
Worst-case scenario: He stays at Wolves and once again struggles to find the back of the net.
4. James McCarthy
(Nigel French/EMPICS Sport)
If James McCarthy is to turn into the great player that all Irish fans want him to become, this season will surely be a crucial stage in his development. After being arguably the best player in an inept Wigan team last year, most observers expected the Scottish-born player to move on in light of the club’s relegation. However, rumours linking McCarthy with a move have gone disappointingly quiet of a late. One of the clubs most strongly linked with the midfielder, Tottenham, have seemingly opted instead to spend their money on a similar type of player in Paulinho. With only three league goals last year, and only seven in total in his Wigan career, McCarthy doesn’t appear to offer much of a goalscoring threat. However, as he proved in Ireland’s recent friendly with England, he can be highly effective in a more deep-lying midfield role. Yet whether bigger clubs consider his skills worthy of their hard-earned cash is another matter.
Ideal scenario: He signs for a top level Premier League club and starts games consistently for them.
Worst-case scenario: He stays at Wigan and fails to have as great an impact as hoped at Championship level.
5. James McClean
(Andrew Matthews/EMPICS Sport)
Of all the major Irish players playing at the top level last year, none suffered as dramatic a decline in form as James McClean. Having featured consistently after breaking into the first team in his debut season at Sunderland, the former Derry player took a few steps backwards last year. Gone was the exuberance and fearlessness of old. Instead, McClean often looked hesitant, and oddly, rather leggy at times. Another sub-par season and he won’t be a Premier League player for much longer.
Ideal scenario: He regains the type of form showed in his first Premier League season and starts regularly for Ireland.
Worst-case scenario: He is sold by Sunderland to a lower division club and promptly fades into obscurity.
6. Keiren Westwood
(Rebecca Naden/PA Archive/Press Association Images)
Westwood declared his intention to stay and fight for his place at Sunderland recently, and Giovanni Trapattoni has suggested he needs to be playing regularly in order to be picked for the national side. And to a degree, the Manchester-born player has been unlucky. His arrival at the Black Cats coincided with Simon Mignolet’s excellent form, thus giving him little chance to break into the side. The Belgian goalkeeper has now left for Liverpool, but he still faces stiff competition for a place in the side in the form of new signing Vito Mannone. While David Forde has often excelled in an Irish jersey, at 33 and largely deemed a Championship journeyman, he seems no more than a stop gap. An impressive season could see the 28-year-old regain favour with Trapattoni, which could in turn help him to become a stalwart of the Irish side for years to come.
Idea scenario: He firmly establishes himself as Sunderland’s number one, winning his place back for Ireland in the process.
Worst case scenario: He spends the season on the bench, thus further ruining a once hugely promising career.
7. Paul McShane
(Mike Egerton/PA Wire/Press Association Images)
There is arguably no other player (maybe Paul Green?) that inspires as much antipathy among Irish fans as Paul McShane. Interestingly though, he is, by and large, a fan favourite at Hull and was cited by many as one of the club’s most impressive performers last year. Nevertheless, doubts remain over his ability to cope with the demands of football at the highest level. When competing in the Premier League for Sunderland, he gained a reputation for being error prone. Consequently, the defender will hopefully have learned from his past inadequacies and avoid such a torrid experience of the top flight this time around.
Ideal scenario: He plays an integral role in helping Hull to avoid relegation.
Worst-case scenario: He proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he simply is not a Premier League player.
8. Aiden McGeady
(Lynne Cameron/PA Archive/Press Association Images)
While his time at Spartak Moscow has by no means been a failure, you get the sense that McGeady is now eager to move on. When asked by Irish reporters about his intentions for next year, he did little to play down suggestions he could move elsewhere. Roberto Martinez is known to be an long-term admirer, but whether McGeady would be suited to a club such as Everton remains to be seen. Moreover, his current club will, at the very least, want to recoup a substantial portion of the £9.5 million they paid for him. Of even more pressing concerns is his form itself. He’s now 27, yet for Ireland at least, he continues to produce the type of lazy passes and inept crosses that his youth and supreme skill previously excused to an extent. A strong coach and a renewed determination to better himself could yet alleviate those flaws, but time is running out for the player to fulfil his undoubted potential.
Ideal scenario: He moves to a solid Premier League club and develops a greater consistency in his game.
Worst-case scenario: He continues to produce erratic performances, which frustratingly only show glimpses of his brilliance.
9. Richard Dunne
(Steve Drew/EMPICS Sport)
It would be a fitting end to Richard Dunne’s career were he to lead Ireland’s backline in Brazil next summer, particularly as he was only a peripheral squad member the last time Ireland qualified for the competition in 2002, with then-manager Mick McCarthy instead preferring to select the more experienced duo of Steve Staunton and Gary Breen. However, history could repeat itself (that is, assuming Ireland achieve the difficult task of qualifying) should Dunne endure another disappointing season. Both QPR and Hull have been linked with the veteran, though both his age and his susceptibility to injury make him a risky purchase.
Ideal scenario: He gets bought by a Premier League team and remains injury-free throughout the season.
Worst-case scenario: He suffers another recurrence of past injuries and is forced to retire as a result.
10. Jonathan Walters
(Tony Marshall/EMPICS Sport)
Jonathan Walters has been a virtual ever-present in the Stoke side since signing for the club and was in many ways viewed as epitomising the style favoured by Tony Pulis. However, now that the club have installed Mark Hughes as manager, it would hardly be a huge surprise if his new plans for the club failed to incorporate Walters prominently. The Ireland international is typically regarded as functional and hard-working, but if Hughes is seeking to alter Stoke’s reputation as a kick-and-rush team, there would be no player more appropriate to axe than Walters. While he has many qualities, flair is generally not one of them, meaning Hughes may consider him dispensable. Conversely, presuming the Welsh manager is eager to adopt a more adventurous approach, it could also mean the Merseyside-born player is given a chance to play more often as a centre forward, rather than finding himself being selected as a makeshift winger, as was often the case last year.
Ideal scenario: He plays a prominent role in helping Stoke to secure a top-half position.
Worst-case scenario: He spends the majority of the season on the bench.