Northern Ireland broke into the top 20 in the latest FIFA World Rankings this week, leaving the Republic trailing in their wake.
Michael O’Neill’s side look set to nab a playoff spot in the race for World Cup qualification – and a seeded one at that – while Martin O’Neill’s Boys in Green have it all to do to even finish second in their own group (and even that doesn’t guarantee anything).
Despite, on paper at least, having arguably the weaker of the two playing squads (and certainly a smaller pool to choose from), Michael O’Neill has worked wonders with this Northern Irish side and could culminate in the former Shamrock Rovers boss leading them to their second major tournament in succession for the first time in their history.
Martin O’Neill, meanwhile, has had the accusation thrown at him that he is failing to get the best from the current group of Irish players, with the knives sharpening after the team’s two disappointing results against Georgia and Serbia.
While the organisational spirit of the Northern Irish team can’t be called into question, is Michael O’Neill getting more from this team than the sum of its parts? If, like the rugby team, the two Ireland sides decided to merge together, how many from one team would make it into the other?
(Disclaimer: This is purely hypothetical.)
Darren Randolph (Republic of Ireland). Neither side is blessed with a top-level goalkeeper, though both have solid Championship options. Northern Ireland’s Michael McGovern was fantastic at Euro 2016, and earned himself a move to Norwich, but has struggled to break into the Canaries’ starting lineup. Randolph, meanwhile, joined Middlesbrough for £5m in the summer and has always been a solid option in green.
Jonny Evans (Northern Ireland). The former Man United defender has grown in stature at West Brom (Alex Ferguson is still aghast that Louis van Gaal sold him), and although a move to Man City in the summer never materialised, Evans is still regarded as one of the best defenders in the league (and way above anything that the Republic has to offer).
Shane Duffy (Republic of Ireland). Duffy looked unsure of himself in his initial steps in international, but he was one of the few Ireland players to emerge from both recent qualifiers with a lot of credit. The Brighton centre-half will gain vital Premier League experience this season, and that sort of top-level opposition will do his international career the world of good.
Gareth McAuley (Northern Ireland). At the age of 37 and with 72 caps to his name, McAuley is definitely winding down at this stage of his career. However, his experience, aerial ability and proficiency at playing out from the back (in a Tony Pulis team, no less) prove that class is permanent.
Seamus Coleman (Republic of Ireland). One of the best right-backs in the Premier League, and a huge loss to Ireland in this campaign. Coleman adapted to the new responsibility of captaining his country remarkably well, and is probably the first name down on this teamsheet from either side.
Steven Davis (Northern Ireland). The Northern Ireland captain typically puts in strong performances in the midfield. The 32-year-old’s awareness and ability to shield the back four are vital in the way O’Neill’s side play and is a big factor in their impressive defensive displays.
Harry Arter (Republic of Ireland). Arguably the most comfortable Irish midfielder on the ball (with the exception of Wes Hoolahan), Arter has not been able to express his technical ability as much as he has done with Bournemouth, but once Martin O’Neill works out to use Arter in midfield, the results will be instantaneous. Indeed, the need for Hoolahan becomes less obvious if the midfield behind him can play their natural game.
Robbie Brady (Republic of Ireland). The Burnley man made himself an Irish hero at Euro 2016 with goals against Italy and France, and while his performances since that tournament have dipped slightly, he remains one of the side’s most potent creative threats – not least through his set-pieces.
Jonathan Walters (Republic of Ireland). Another for whom time is catching up, Walters has kept the physical presence that makes him so useful for Ireland but has slowed down to the point that playing to his strengths is becoming harder to do. Nonetheless, the forward line is another area where few stand out on either side.
James McClean (Republic of Ireland). McClean is the tenacious heartbeat of the Ireland team, chasing every ball and giving everything in every match. On form, he can make a massive difference in play (as shown in Vienna against Austria).
Conor Washington (Northern Ireland). The 25-year-old is one of those players that seems to be better suited to playing internationally than the club game. Washington has risen from the non-league ranks to this point, and led the line to solid effect in the recent win against the Czech Republic. The former postman is well on his way to being Northern Ireland’s main out-and-out striker at the World Cup.
Michael O’Neill (Northern Ireland). The job that O’Neill has done with Northern Ireland cannot be overstated. Having taken the job in 2011, he has had to endure some poor initial results (including a 2-0 defeat in Luxembourg), but a 1-1 draw in Portugal and a home victory against Russia showed that there was something about the manager.
Qualification for Euro 2016 followed, and having brought them to the first knockout round of that competition, O’Neill looks on course to bring his side to Russia next year – a phenomenal achievement, given the player resources available to him.
On this week’s episode of the Mixer Irish football podcast, we’re joined by Cork City captain Johnny Dunleavy to discuss the FAI Cup semi-final draw, and look ahead to this weekend’s EA Sports Cup final between Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk.