Sport Soccer

Friday 18 August 2017

Big questions facing Irish stars in Championship finale

Plenty at stake for exiles at both ends of table, writes Daniel McDonnell

Brighton & Hove Albion manager Chris Hughton. Photo: PA
Brighton & Hove Albion manager Chris Hughton. Photo: PA
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The Championship season draws to a close tomorrow and, as ever, the English second tier is stacked with stories of Irish interest.

In an ideal world, it wouldn't be that way of course. But reduced opportunities in the Premier League mean that the bulk of Martin O'Neill's options are operating in the level below the top flight.

There's a few matters to be decided in the final round of fixtures and, beyond that, the general end of season business at a variety of clubs will have an impact on the future of several Irishmen, both on the pitch and in the dug-out. Here are some of the issues that need to be resolved:

Will Chris Hughton get his hands on the trophy?

Brighton have lost their way since sealing promotion, with back-to-back losses meaning they only hold a one point advantage over Newcastle heading into their final game of the season away at Aston Villa.

Whatever happens, this season will be remembered as a success but Brighton were the most consistent team across the duration of the promotion race so it would be a shame if it ended on a low note. Newcastle will expect to take full points from the visit of Barnsley.

Will Richie Towell get on the pitch?

Brighton's late collapse has been bad news for the ex-Dundalk man. A win against either Norwich or Bristol City would have secured the trophy and allow the fringe performers to get some game-time. Instead, Hughton has stuck with the tried and trusted.

Towell scored in January's FA Cup defeat to Lincoln but exiting that competition hurt his prospects of game-time. His league contribution has been restricted to six minutes off the bench at Rotherham and, while Hughton blocked a loan move in January, he is likely to spend 2017/18 elsewhere.

Is Rob Elliot Newcastle's n0 1?

After a dreadful injury ruled him out of last summer's Euros, it was a long road back for Elliot, who was one of the few bright lights of Newcastle's Premier League relegation campaign.

Karl Darlow kept his place between the sticks when Elliot eventually recovered from his knee problem but Rafa Benitez opted to restore the Irishman for the success over Preston that booked their Premier ticket.

Elliot will be watching Benitez's summer moves in his position with interest.

What's the relegation scenario?

It's tight at the bottom. Blackburn are third from last because of a goal difference that is one inferior to Nottingham Forest.

The latter are at home to Ipswich, while Blackburn travel to Brentford. If both manage to win, then Birmingham, who are two points ahead with a considerably worse goal difference, will be dragged into it if they fail to win at Bristol City.

Blackburn have a sizeable Irish contingent with improving youngsters Darragh Lenihan and Derrick Williams prominent, Tommie Hoban back from injury and the lesser-seen Anthony Stokes also on the books.

The luckless Stephen Henderson was ruled out of Forest's run-in, while Stephen Gleeson has been in and out of the Birmingham side.

What happened to Jack Byrne?

He was at Blackburn too and fared just as badly as Stokes. His loan from Manchester City was cut short and he joined Wigan on a permanent basis, yet was unable to prevent them from falling through the trapdoor.

Byrne came off the bench to contribute to heroic comebacks against Rotherham and Barnsley that gave his new employer a squeak of survival, but was unused in the following three matches that sealed their fate.

Maybe their dead rubber against Leeds will afford him a first start since September. He will have to rebuild his career in League One.

Another 1996 child, Galwegian Ryan Manning, has arguably jumped ahead of him in the Irish pecking order off the back of fine displays for QPR.

Where does Aiden McGeady go from here?

The Irish legion at Preston performed strongly, but their season tailed off in the final weeks with Greg Cunningham struck down by injury and Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan taken out of the firing line as they prepare for a first proper break since resuming pre-season training with Dundalk in January 2016.

McGeady was their best player, but Simon Grayson is unsure if a permanent deal can be cut with the Everton loanee because of his Premier League wages. He might have to accept reduced terms to stay where he is truly appreciated.

Are Aston Villa on the verge of a revival?

Steve Bruce has found it hard to turn things around despite splashing the cash in January - his recruits included Conor Hourihane and international procrastinator Scott Hogan.

Both have struggled to get into the rhythm that marked them out as quality performers with Barnsley and Brentford respectively.

Bruce has a lot of high earners on the books, but the jury is out on whether he has the personnel to mould them into a teak tough outfit that can prevail across a 46-game slog.

the next step for Wes?

Norwich are on the look-out for a new manager, with Michael O'Neill floated as an option.

The departed Alex Neil used Hoolahan sparingly and one of the reported reasons for the breakdown in the Scot's relationship with the hierarchy is that he wanted the replace the veteran Irishman.

Hoolahan (34) is settled in the area and will hope that the new man has a positive philosophy.

Is this the end for Mick McCarthy?

The Ipswich rumour mill is in overdrive, with local media suggesting that Dutchman Maurice Steijn is on a shortlist of potential bosses to replace McCarthy who is the longest-serving manager in an attritional division.

McCarthy has a year left on his contract and is planning to overhaul his squad. A meeting with owner Marcus Evans is pencilled in for next week.

What's the best outcome from the play-offs?

Fulham have no Irish angle of note, while Huddersfield have Sean Scannell on the periphery; it's a decade since he was in Ireland contention.

A top-flight return for Sheffield Wednesday's Keiren Westwood would help his prospects, but third-placed Reading are the side to adopt. Paul McShane is their captain and, while Stephen Quinn has spent the season on the treatment table, the emergence of the exciting Liam Kelly is a positive development. He is the one to root for.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport