Daniel McDonnell: No shame if Towell outgrows local game and moves to Brighton
Challenge for league is to have enough rising stars to cope with his loss
Published 23/11/2015 | 02:30
After topping the goalscoring charts from midfield, scoring a winner in the cup final to complete a domestic double and then being voted the best player in the country by his peers, it's fair to say that Richie Towell will be leaving Ireland on good terms if his move to Brighton goes through this week.
Dundalk were clinging to the hope over the weekend that they could persuade the Dubliner to stay, but Towell's comments after collecting the PFA Ireland award on Friday evening suggested that the writing was on the wall. It would be quite a U-turn.
Stephen Kenny's side will desperately miss the 24-year-old if he packs his bags and so too will the league as a whole, although the chasing pack that want to stop the Louthmen from winning three in a row will understandably be glad to see the back of him.
Towell's confidence has succeeded in winding up opposition teams. Indeed, it's believed that the dressing room of one rival had planned to vote against him in the PFAI awards because of a bit of previous. It was never going to make a difference to the outcome. Even his detractors would have to admit that he's been a breath of fresh air for the league.
Much of the chat at the beginning of this season was about the presence of well-known ex-internationals, with Liam Miller's return and Keith Fahey's switch to Shamrock Rovers prompting discussions about the quality of midfield performer when Cork visited Tallaght with Colin Healy and Stephen McPhail factored into the equation. The subsequent arrival of Damien Duff, one of Ireland's greatest ever players, generated excitement.
But when it came to the end of the campaign, Dundalk was the team that the neutrals were talking about and Towell was the player people wanted to see.
He's become a recognisable face through his exploits on Irish soil as opposed to his past endeavours and that's what sets him apart. It's why there is a curiosity about what another year here could do for his profile.
Too often, the league has relied on big characters in the dugout to build hype in the perpetual attempt to get bums on seats. Yet it was Stephen Kenny that pointed out on Friday that ultimately, the game is about players, and a marketable personality like Towell has painted an attractive picture of the Airtricity League. The swagger sells.
He spoke to Roy Keane at the Gibson Hotel ceremony and it was the Corkman that announced that the ex-Celtic youth was a 'well-deserved' winner of the main prize. Towell has boldly stated that he believes he is good enough to force his way into the squad for France next summer and, while he still has a fair bit to prove in that regard, stranger things have happened.
It helps that the current management team are not afraid to pitch players in. Martin O'Neill was the Sunderland manager that gave James McClean his English debut just seven months before he went to Poland.
Keane respects the League of Ireland route and says that the Lilywhites were the fittest team he'd ever seen at that level; it's one attribute that has made Towell and Daryl Horgan attractive to shoppers from across the water. That was a huge factor in fitness addict McClean hitting the ground running too.
It's inevitable that the League of Ireland will lose its best young players when they reach a certain level and it can't even be called a selling league when they are able to leave for free once they're over 23. Dundalk's assets know that English sides are reluctant to pay fees so that's why they would only sign one-year deals.
Nevertheless, by keeping hold of Towell for 2015 when they had expected to lose him - Ronan Finn was signed as a replacement - Dundalk made a significant step towards retaining a league title that is worth €650,000 when the substantial UEFA funds are added to the FAI's modest €100,000 reward. They've profited from his services.
Towell now arguably enjoys a higher profile than Irishmen plying their trade in League One and Two and that's why his imminent departure could become a good news story for the league if he lives up to his own expectations. What's disappointing is that we don't have five or six more Towell-type characters coming up the ranks behind him.
There are high hopes for Brandon Miele at Shamrock Rovers, who scooped the PFAI Young Player gong, joining a list that includes Wes Hoolahan, Daryl Murphy, Shaun Williams, Paddy McCourt, Niall McGinn and Chris Forrester in addition to Towell and Horgan.
Alas, while the same voices repeatedly stress the benefits of learning at home, there's little evidence of a change in the culture.
The introduction of the new U-17 league is undoubtedly an encouraging step and there are already some positive noises about youngsters that have made an impression, but there are tales of clubs only securing the services of players if they agree not to cause a fuss over compensation if an overseas side shows an interest. Hence, we export kids for four-figure sums.
And a look at the recent underage squads demonstrates that the vast majority of our early developing youths remain prepared to pack their bags for across the water, whatever the destination. When League Two Stevenage Borough are deemed to be a better bet than developing at home then you've got a problem.
Towell has become a poster boy for the domestic product, a role model that kids can look up to. It would be a refreshing change if the mentors and parents of the next generation realised the value of following in his footsteps.