When James McClean replaced Damien Duff in the 76th minute of Thursday's UEFA EURO 2012 Group C encounter in Gdansk between Spain and the Republic of Ireland, there was a sense of a baton being passed.
McClean is only 23 but Duff is 33, Shay Given 36, Richard Dunne 32, Robbie Keane 31 and John O'Shea 31. Between them they have 495 caps and while time is an opponent no footballer can ever beat, there is a distinct fear – borne out of comments from Given, Dunne and Keane – that this tournament could be their last.
Duff and O'Shea will almost certainly stay, for now, with Duff saying: "I won't retire from international football. A manager will retire me." Those sentiments were echoed by O'Shea, whose pride in playing for his country equals the glory he celebrated when winning 11 major medals with Manchester United FC.
To get an idea of the value of these players to Irish football, it is worth noting that when fit and available, all five have been selected for every UEFA European Championship or FIFA World Cup qualifier since September 2005. Given, Duff and Keane haven't been a substitute since 2001.
It is hard to imagine an Irish team without them, but this is a reality which will visit us soon – if not within the next few months, then certainly within the next few years. No player can go on forever.
Yet Irish football needs the famous five to go on for as long as possible. With a tiny playing pool to choose from, the influence of an experienced, mature group to school the next generation is hugely important. McClean is the classic example of a talented young man with the world at his feet. "When this tournament is over we will start again," said coach Giovanni Trapattoni. "We will turn the page."
Yet it is vital that Duff, Given, Keane, Dunne and O'Shea are there when that page is turned. "I remember Jack Charlton telling Kevin Moran, John Aldridge and Andy Townsend there was no way they were retiring because he couldn't afford to lose them," recalls former Ireland striker Niall Quinn. "That has to be the case now with our veteran players. They need to stay on."
With all this in mind, tomorrow's game against Italy in Poznan is much more significant that people credit. While Ireland cannot qualify for the quarter-finals, what they can do is claim some points and some pride. Do that and it will, hopefully, be enough to persuade the experienced crew that their international careers have a bright future as well as a glorious past.
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