Glenn Whelan will lead Republic of Ireland out against Northern Ireland at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, tonight knowing his 85th cap is likely to be his last while insisting he will never retire from international football.
The 34-year-old Aston Villa midfielder last pulled on a green shirt 12 months ago when he was used as a late substitute in Ireland’s 0-0 World Cup play-off draw in Denmark, with manager Martin O’Neill starting to turn to a new generation of players.
However, while Whelan is hugely proud of his achievements for his country and knows his time on the international stage has effectively drawn to a close, he is adamant he will still be there if needed.
Sitting alongside O’Neill, he said: “The retirement thing, you are dead and buried and done. Obviously the manager over the last 12 months or so has tried to bed new lads in and that’s the way Ireland are going.
“I’m more than happy with that - these lads have waited a long time and they need to get some caps under their belt. Looking at the next couple of years, hopefully we do qualify (for Euro 2020), but I’d be 36 or 37, so I think that’s way off.”
“Retirement, as in putting it down on paper, I’d never do that. But I know tomorrow is probably going to be the last time I play for Ireland.
“But I’ve never picked when to come and play for Ireland and I’ll certainly never pick when I’m not going to play. The manager knows that if anything ever happens, I’ll be available.”
Whelan, who won his first cap in a friendly against Serbia in May 2008, has not always been appreciated, with Irish TV pundit Eamon Dunphy among his most vociferous critics. However, managers Giovanni Trapattoni and O’Neill have been more than happy with his contribution.
O’Neill said: “During my time, despite the fact that he is seemingly quite a quiet lad in many aspects, I thought he led the team. He was captain of the side as well under me and had a really good time before that under Giovanni.
“In my five years here, he’s missed out the last year, just getting on a wee bit in age, but honestly, he’s really been excellent.
“We’ve had the occasional difference of opinion - and I’ve obviously been right as the manager. But overall, I’ve got great respect for him.”
Whelan will leave the squad ahead of Monday’s Nations League trip to Denmark, where winger James McClean will also be missing though suspension.
McClean has once again found himself in the spotlight in recent weeks over his decision not to wear a Remembrance Day poppy on his shirt, and the political sensitivities surrounding Thursday night’s game have prompted O’Neill to speak to the midfielder amid fears he may be targeted once again.
The manager said: “I have spoken to him, he’s fine, he’s in really good fettle. I think he’s mindful of everything that has gone on, so whether he starts the game or he comes on, he’ll definitely play a part in proceedings.”