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Thursday 18 September 2014

7 Irish stars with point to prove in the second tier

Martin O’Neill will be keeping close tabs on the Championship – and these men can catch his eye

Published 09/08/2014 | 02:30

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Martin O'Neil will be keeping an eye on Ireland's Wes Hoolahan in the Championship this year. Jan Kruger/Getty Images
Martin O'Neil will be keeping an eye on Ireland's Wes Hoolahan in the Championship this year. Jan Kruger/Getty Images

ln an ideal world, the start of a new Championship campaign would only be of minor interest to an Irish international boss.

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The reality, however, is that Martin O'Neill will have to keep close tabs on proceedings in the second tier as he formulates his plans for Ireland's Euro 2016 qualifiers.

Below the riches of the top flight, the majority of the players engaged in the lower leagues live a relatively precarious existence.

There is good money to be earned in the Championship but, in an era of shorter contracts, one bad season can have significant implications. It is an exciting and competitive division, where games come along thick and fast, yet there is also a purgatorial aspect for the protagonists.

From here, their career paths can go in dramatically different directions and, for this septet of Irishmen, it is a campaign where they have to make a big statement.

Richard Keogh (Derby)

The central defender finished the last campaign on the ultimate low, with his Wembley howler gifting promotion to QPR and ensuring a summer of misery for a popular figure who had starred in the season proper. Derby are a good side and, under Steve McClaren, they kick off the new season with realistic ambitions of going up automatically. Keogh has extra motivation to ensure that it happens. Jeff Hendrick will also be an important part of their mission, and Leon Best

has arrived on loan to bolster their forward options.

Wes Hoolahan (Norwich)

After a turbulent relegation campaign which saw him frozen out at crucial periods and demonised for trying to move to Aston Villa, Hoolahan is back in fashion in Norwich. He agreed a two-year contract extension earlier this week and new manager Neil Adams has made moves in pre-season which would suggest that the Dubliner will be central to his side's modus operandi. At this stage of his career, Hoolahan needs to be at the highest level to maintain his belated international status so this is a significant period for the playmaker.

Stephen Henderson (Charlton)

The long-term future of Irish goalkeeping is currently personified by a question mark. David Forde, who has pledged his future to Millwall, holds the shirt for now, but the onus is on the next generation to really come along and knock on the door. Henderson looked to be on the upgrade when he joined West Ham in 2012 but he was unlucky with fitness issues and has spent a lot of his football life as a loanee. His permanent switch to Charlton is a big step.

Keiren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday)

Speaking of goalkeepers, Westwood was primed after Euro 2012 to take over from Shay Given but he never really warmed to the task. Injuries were undoubtedly a factor, although former Irish goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly seemed to have other reservations. His final year at Sunderland was completely ruined and relocation to Sheffield Wednesday marks a new departure. In theory, dropping down a level should ensure regular football, but Chris Kirkland still has to be dislodged.

Stephen Gleeson (Birmingham)

The 26-year-old's free transfer switch from MK Dons didn't quite take over Sky Sports News, but it could have seismic implications for his own development. Gleeson is a ball-playing midfielder who had obvious potential as a teenager and was brought to America

in 2007 for Steve Staunton's ill-fated tour where caps were thrown around like confetti. He couldn't force his way in at Wolves and headed for Milton Keynes, where he has built a reasonable reputation. Now, he is presented with a Championship opening at a big club which flirted with the drop last term. Keith Andrews and Stephen Quinn are other examples of players who had to sink down a couple of tiers before rising again.

Alan Judge (Brentford)

The Dubliner was affectionately nicknamed as 'the Irish Messi' during his stint at Notts County. Sadly, he has struggled to bring his entertaining lower league exploits to Championship level. A year ago, Judge signed up with his first senior club Blackburn, ready to succeed where he failed as a teenager. Alas, he was sent out on loan to Brentford in January, promptly helped them to escape League One and the 25-year-old has now signed up with the Londoners with a view to finally making his mark on this stage.

Shaun Williams (Millwall)

The League of Ireland graduate struck up a good relationship with Gleeson at MK Dons before attracting admiring glances from a higher plain. Millwall won the race for his services last January, but Williams was plunged headlong into a serious battle with the trapdoor. Ian Holloway's charges prevailed and it will be interesting to see how the versatile operator develops under a different kind of pressure as Millwall seek to compete at the right end of the table.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Andy Reid (Nottingham Forest) doesn't really have a point to prove; he just has to maintain last year's high standards and avoid injury woe. Sean Murray (Watford) is only 20 but he has plenty of first team experience and is one of Irish football's great white hopes. He will have the seasoned Keith Andrews for company this term.

James McClean (Wigan) was pressed into action as an emergency attacker in the Latics' doomed play-off attempt. Uwe Rosler seemed to change his mind about the Derry man on a regular basis. Rob Kiernan, a defender who has gained plenty of match practice on loan, also came into the German's thinking in the latter part of the campaign.

Matt Doherty (Wolves) is one Irishman at Molineux who knows that he will be prominently involved upon their return to the Championship. Kevin Doyle, Stephen Ward and Kevin Foley will be hoping to depart before the close of the transfer window. Ward could well end up at Brighton again if a wage agreement can be reached. Richard Stearman qualifies for Ireland and wants to find a way into O'Neill's plans.

David McGoldrick (Ipswich) meets the criteria and was on the radar before injury ended his promising campaign prematurely, thus scuppering the playoff ambitions of Mick McCarthy's boys. Waterford pair Daryl Murphy and Stephen Hunt are still going strong.

Eunan O’Kane (Bournemouth) is a Derry man on the upgrade.

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