League's likely lads have potential to join growing volume of success stories
The trickle of domestic talent flowing to British clubs is not likely to end in the season to come, writes Seán Ryan
SIX of the Class of 2008 have gone on to achieve full international status – four with the Republic of Ireland and two with Northern Ireland, while two of the Class of 2011 have already made that move to the top level of the game.
So we're talking serious talent when we examine the annual haemorrhaging of players, which the Airtricity League has suffered from over the past five years. In fact, it has now become a favourite guessing game among the fans as to who will be next to make the move overseas – and who will be next to go on to earn full international honours.
In the past five years, 50 of the League's players have moved abroad to further their careers. Of those, only nine have returned to the League, figures which represent a success rate that must give all those schoolboy hopefuls pause for thought before they put pen to paper on their Academy deals.
It was Kevin Doyle's move to Reading in 2005, and the instant success which he enjoyed when he played a leading role in helping them win promotion to the Premier League, that convinced the doubting Thomases of the UK scene that the League of Ireland was a source worth mining.
What makes it especially rewarding is that, since the adoption of summer football, clubs sign a player in the peak of condition during either transfer window. Doyle, for instance, signed in the summer when he was the League's leading scorer, and he played straight through the English season, at the end of which manager Steve Coppell said that the signing of Doyle was the key factor in Reading's promotion.
A more recent example: last month Yeovil Town signed Kevin Dawson. He went straight into their midfield, and his first six matches saw Yeovil win five and draw the other, jumping them into the play-off places in League One. Unlike in the past, when League of Ireland players faced a tough pre-season after signing, and often fell victim to niggling injuries which held them back, summer football has them straining at the leash when the opportunity arrives.
There was a belief that the interest in the domestic league would taper off as soon as it reverted to mainly part-time, which occurred five years ago, but the figures give the lie to that theory. Because the league is so competitive, and the coaching standards are constantly improving, there has been no diminution of overseas interest in its players.
Of course, overseas interest doesn't pay the bills, as many of the players now move on free transfers because their clubs can only offer one-year deals at the end of which the player becomes a free agent. Increasing the domestic interest is the name of the game – and that becomes more difficult when the League's best players depart the scene year after year.
You can't blame the players, for they clearly see that a move abroad increases their chances of international honours, surely the goal of all players. McCourt, Sammon, McGinn, Coleman, Meyler and Fahey from the Class of '08, and Mannus and McClean from '11 are proof of that.
All of which leaves the current set of League managers with the obvious conundrum: how do you replace the previous year's stars, maintain the League's high standards, and increase interest among football fans?
The answer, each season, has been to blood more young talent. Very often it is a player returning from a spell in the UK, where he went as a teenager, and didn't make the grade. In the League of Ireland he is offered the chance to resurrect his career while playing a more competitive brand of football than he experienced in the reserves overseas.
Then there are the usual nurseries – St Kevin's Boys, Belvedere, St Joseph's Boys, Home Farm etc in Dublin, and a myriad up-and-coming youth set-ups around the country. The latter situation is emphasised by the absence of any Dublin club in the last eight of this year's FAI Youth Cup.
No wonder, then, that when I look at the lads most likely to light up the League this season, most of them are from outside Dublin. However, that's not to say that the League title will be heading that way. All the portents favour Shamrock Rovers regaining the title, not least the absence of European football from their itinerary.
Last season, St Patrick's Athletic played six games in Europe at a critical time of the season. Without that distraction, they would have run Sligo Rovers much closer for the title, and might even have won it.
Of the top four teams last year, Shamrock Rovers are the only one not involved in Europe. With a new manager, Trevor Croly, and a dressing-room full of League winners, they should be in the driving seat this year.
Holders Sligo Rovers, St Patrick's Athletic, Drogheda United and Cork City should all be competing at the top end of the table. FAI Cup winners Derry City could be added to that list if manager Declan Devine can replace, for the second season running, his leading scorers.
The action kicks off on Friday night, with the north-west derby between Derry City and Sligo Rovers the pick of the bunch, while the first live TV game is on Sunday next in Thomond Park when newly-promoted Limerick host Cork City.
Finally, my likely lads for 2013 are: Lee Lynch and David Cawley (Sligo Rovers), Barry McNamee (Derry City), Chris Forrester and Jake Carroll (St Patrick's Athletic), Conor McCormack and Ronan Finn (Shamrock Rovers), Ian Turner and Daryl Horgan (Cork City), Kieran Waters (Bray Wanderers), Paul O'Conor (Drogheda United) and Michael Barker (Bohemians).