Much has often been made of the reduced number of Republic of Ireland players plying their trade in the top flights, with particular emphasis on the Premier League, which has become something of a graveyard for promising footballers from the Emerald Isle looking to make a big impact.
The days of Irish stars regularly lining up for the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and other kingpins of British football are now a distant memory, having become squeezed out by much of the foreign imports that the big clubs continually look to for immediate impact, flair, excitement and the ability to sell shirts faster than they can be manufactured.
In the 1970s, 80s, and right up until the early noughties, Irish footballers were commonplace in the Premier League. The likes of Liam Brady, Johnny Giles and Paddy Mulligan represented the country’s dominance across the water when bellbottoms, tie-dye t-shirts and an all-encompassing drinking culture were omnipotent in the terraced stands and the footballers’ cliques. But it soon morphed into something resembling sustainable progress as the league itself grew into something more than a good league – it became an industry in itself.
The latter years of Ireland’s prosperity in England’s highest tier, just before and a few years after the turn of the millennium, saw Roy Keane, Dennis Irwin, Damien Duff, Jason McAteer and Robbie Keane, among others, establish themselves as worthy of their place in the most exciting European league around.
A potted history of Ireland’s time as a key player in that 30 to 40-year period might describe the ending as something of a petering out of power, as opposed to a grandiose farewell from the upper echelons. Where once Irish eyes smiled on the adoring crowds of the powerhouses of British football, they’re now lucky to see themselves even linked to a transfer via an unreliable ‘source’ to teams like FA Cup-winners Arsenal, league champions Chelsea or Manchester City.
Kevin O’Neill, Irishman and author of the forthcoming book Where Have All the Irish Gone? The Sad Demise of Ireland’s Once Relevant Footballers, which offers an in-depth text analysing some of the history and reasons behind the disappearing Irish in the top flight, summed it up best when he spoke exclusively to These Football Times: “Everyone in Irish football is aware of how good we had it in the 1970s and 1980s with the likes of Brady, Paul McGrath, David O’Leary and Ronnie Whelan – to name a few – playing for the leading clubs.
“Before that, we had John Giles winning league titles at Leeds United after greats like Johnny Carey and Noel Cantwell made huge impressions for Manchester United. Roy Keane came later of course and around the time of the birth of the Premier League, which subsequently heralded a new era for English football where television and sponsorship money went through the roof.”
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A combination of the Bosman ruling, the culture of football being dominated by money that fuelled high-profile transfers involving experienced professionals rather than young green players, and a general heightening of pressure for managers all played their part in dissipating many of the good vibes for Irish footballers over time.
Now, the Premier League landscape has lost its green colour, replaced instead with a vibrant thrall of everything, and while its increasingly multi-cultural make-up and diverse collection of nationalities is a positive melting pot for surprise and excitement, it has meant that Irish players have found it increasingly difficult to elbow their way into the most glamorous, highly-paid and successful of teams.
However, all is not lost.
Right now, there is a hearty gathering of Irish footballers doing their nation proud below the radar, and it is arguably the loss of the big teams that they aren’t playing at a higher level – because they are more than capable of it.
Take Preston North End as an example of the sort of mini revolution taking place for Irish footballers in England. Something of an Ireland FC, the Football League club have turned to Irish talent in an effort to maintain stability and achieve results. As many as five of the current squad are eligible Irish with the likes of capped international and 2016 Club Player of the Year Greg Cunningham, promising starlet Alan Browne and others among their ranks.
Kevin O’Neill suggests that moves to minnows like them might just be a necessary move for League of Ireland youngsters looking to earn an eventual transfer to prestigious silverware-chasing outfits: “Preston are only doing what I thought English Championship and lower Premier League clubs should have been doing for years; tapping into the League of Ireland on a more regular basis.
“For me, English clubs can come to Ireland at the end of any given League of Ireland season and probably snap up two or three out-of-contract Irish players who have the ability to play comfortably in any of the divisions outside of the Premier League
“The success of Irish players at Preston is great to see, but it’s also no great surprise for anyone familiar with Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan – not forgetting the impact of Alan Browne since moving from Cork City and Greg Cunningham and Aiden McGeady.”
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Cunningham himself, a top-quality defender whom many believe deserves a call-up to the national team, fell victim to the first-hand experiences of earning a move to a superpower when he became a Manchester City player back in 2007.
As a youngster, Cunningham was a precocious, gifted footballer who, alongside his brother Danny, was tipped for big things ever since his days with Cregmore FC, a schoolboy team in the rural countryside of Galway. Having had the pleasure of seeing him perform in practice matches as a kid, even I could tell that he was something special – his movement, quick thinking and genuinely impressive technique was a cocktail for brilliance. So it was no surprise when he landed a move to the Citizens after some time on the Irish circuit with Mervue United.
Joining a club with so much money, who demand instant results and immediate first-team quality, turned out to be the wrong move for Cunningham. However, the 25-year-old deserves enormous credit for the way he has bounced back in recent seasons, catching many people’s eye all over again with the natural ability everyone knew he always had.
Exciting prospect Daryl Horgan, too, is among the next generation of Irish stars making headlines of his own following his move from the history-making Dundalk FC last winter. O’Neill has high hopes for him as well: “Horgan is a terrific attacking player who should go on to play in the Premier League in the near future. His early impact at Preston has shown what an outstanding talent he is. [Andy] Boyle had to wait a bit longer than Horgan to get in the Preston side but again it’s hardly surprising to see him prosper since forcing his way into the starting team.
“Both Boyle and Horgan are used to winning with Dundalk and will not be fazed by Championship football. I would expect both players to have very fruitful careers in England.”
Horgan won the FAI’s League of Ireland Player of the Year a few months ago after a rip-roaring season with Stephen Kenny’s outfit saw him crowned a league champion again as well as playing a starring role in guiding the Lilywhites into the group stages of the Europa League, where they impressed many neutrals with their impressive style, maturity and attacking threat.
Horgan was the team’s creative hub, producing some swashbuckling passages of play that saw him wow crowds on the flank or in behind team’s defensive lines. He has often been likened to Irish centurion Damien Duff for his tireless work-rate and it’s no surprise that the Louth club have not had everything their own way on the domestic circuit since his exit.
Read | The dazzling, underrated excellence of Damien Duff
Another positive for Irish fans who might lament the void of Irish names on FA Cup final or Champions League team-sheets is the excellent form of 20-year-old sensation Ryan Manning. Manning, who is currently at Queens Park Rangers, recently won the Young Player of the Year award at the London club, a sure sign of his excellence ever since making the leap from League of Ireland football where he enjoyed great success with Galway FC, where he played a pivotal role in their emergence from the First Division via a promotion playoff to the nation’s big league.
A pacey winger with bags of energy and a driven attitude, Manning can provide assists as well as chipping in with goals. He has also earned call-ups to Ireland youth set-ups and is widely tipped to be on a path towards a senior call-up when the time is right for Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane to dial his number.
Manning is indeed the embodiment of where Irish football is at right now. The country’s national league is progressing every year, with improved quality in the football, better playing surfaces, increased attendances, improved media coverage and more attention being paid to it by scouts, senior management and the casual football fan. On the whole, things are looking up for it as a player-friendly platform.
It’s viewed as a great resource for British clubs looking for an affordable bargain, and while some see that talent drain as detrimental to the health of the LOI, it’s clear that without increased visibility we wouldn’t get to see the likes of Manning emerge.
Essentially, Manning is in the sweet-spot that means homegrown potential needs to be farmed out in order to reach the next stage on the developmental scale because while LOI football is in a better place than it was 10 or 20 years ago, aspiring world-class players still feel the need to go abroad to further their prospects, find that breakthrough move and in order to catch the international management team’s eye.
Because the rawness and intimacy of the League of Ireland is an increasingly attractive shop window for British, particularly English, clubs it is also the best platform for Irish youngsters to show their raw potential before being moulded elsewhere.
Manning has all the necessary attributes to go on and become the face of a new wave of successful Irish footballers, and while it’s still early days, the signs are good that he will deliver on his promise. He has already hurdled the first few obstacles – getting noticed early on as well as becoming initiated into a top club who have also shown the know-how to allow him to steadily mature instead of foisting unattainable goals upon him.
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Elsewhere, of course, there are bright lights in the shapes of the more experienced Seamus Coleman (despite his recent horror injury), Wes Hoolahan, Robbie Brady, Shane Long and Jonathan Walters, all top-quality players proving that there is still plenty of spirit left in the fighting Irish.
The Boys in Green’s surge to the knockout phase of Euro 2016 might not have matched the impressive feats of Wales’ historic semi-final heroics or the surprise milestone achieved by Iceland, but it certainly cast doubt on any steadfast beliefs that Ireland need their best players playing for the biggest clubs around – with an assembled squad of guys playing week-in, week-out at mid-table Premier League outfits and lower down, they still managed to go far and presently find themselves joint top of their World Cup 2018 qualification group alongside Serbia.
Every Irish fan would no doubt love to see their players lining out in club matches where something exceptional is at stake every time they pull on their jersey, and while that might again happen as it once did, the fact it isn’t happening doesn’t mean the international side’s exploits will worsen because of it. Moreover, it doesn’t mean there aren’t exciting talents coming through.
The Irish management duo of O’Neill and Keane can still achieve admirable things with the right tactics, approach and mentality – and that is something that can be replicated even after they are long gone, whenever that might ultimately be.
Essentially, it would be naive to dream of a period of Irish-populated dominance in the Premier League happening anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean there is a dearth of talent coming through the production lines. Football Association of Ireland scouts are working twice as hard to unearth the hidden gems – or in this case emeralds – that can edge the country towards glory and brilliance, fans are more tapped into the rumblings of ‘the next big thing’ on the Irish soccer scene than they have ever been and clubs across the water and beyond are becoming increasingly clued-in to the potential tucked away in the League of Ireland.
It all means that although Ireland find themselves in an uncertain time where opportunities become more limited and less available for emerging Irish players in the top leagues with every big-money season, they are also entering an exciting phase where their developing talents are starting on the road towards what they hope will one day see them get their hands on silverware and emulate the legacies of their legendary predecessors.
The future might be a mystery, but that’s also part of the appeal for Irish fans who have always maximised enjoyment from the thrill of the chase knowing that success is never guaranteed nor to be taken for granted
By Trevor Murray @TrevorM90
Kevin O’Neill’s book ‘Where Have All the Irish Gone?’ is set to be released on 16 October via Pitch Publishing