Saturday 10 December 2016

Five unlikely heroes who have come to fore in Irish football in 2015

2015 was notable for number of individuals who emerged from shadows to make their mark

Published 30/12/2015 | 02:30

Richard Keogh celebrates Robbie Brady’s goal against Bosnia & Herzegovina (Photo: Sportsfile)
Richard Keogh celebrates Robbie Brady’s goal against Bosnia & Herzegovina (Photo: Sportsfile)

There are plenty of Irish football moments that should feature in the highlights of the sporting year, a reflection of a dramatic 12 months that ended on a high with qualification for Euro 2016.

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Throw in Dundalk's historic double and 2015 will largely be remembered for achievements on the pitch. It's easy to predict who will hog the headlines in awards season. Martin O'Neill and Jonathan Walters will enjoy the plaudits at international level. Locally, it was a campaign that belonged to Stephen Kenny and Richie Towell.

Walters has attained a new status by becoming the talisman en route to France, while Dundalk were underestimated at the start of their bid to retain their crown, but it's hardly a huge surprise that these personalities came to the fore in the autumn. They kicked off their respective journeys with roles that carried great responsibility.

A notable feature of the business end of the year, however, has been the emergence of unlikely heroes who made their mark. Here are five men who turned heads by seizing the moment.

Darren Randolph

Randolph was first called into an Ireland squad in March 2011 and from that point, the press on the Irish beat had become accustomed to watching him go through training drills and walk through mixed zones uninterrupted. If he was put up for interview, Randolph would be asked if he had any interest in declaring for the United States as the lack of a competitive appearance on his CV meant he could switch allegiance to his father Ed's native country.

When a summer move to West Ham and a lay-off for first-choice Adrian gave the Bray stopper a Premier League debut, there was speculation that he would finally get the nod from Martin O'Neill for September's international double-header. Instead, the manager kept faith with Shay Given, and the veteran was set to keep the gloves for the Euros run-in until his knee gave in during the first half of Germany's visit to the Aviva.

The Irish boss had to make a quick decision and went for Randolph over the experienced David Forde, who has lost his place at Millwall. It was the definition of a baptism of fire but the 28-year-old exuded calm from the outset. Goalkeeping coach Seamus McDonagh thinks that Randolph is too laid back. However, with the back four under pressure, he quickly became a reassuring presence and the added bonus was the kicking strength that ended up providing the crucial assist for Shane Long.

Despite his inactivity at West Ham, Randolph showed that it was no fluke by rising to the challenge against Bosnia with a vital first leg stop from Senad Lulic preventing Ireland from going behind in the tie. After missing out on the last Euros, he is certain to travel next summer.

Richard Keogh

There was quite a contrast in Ireland's centre-half pairing for the famous defeat of the Germans. O'Neill knew he could rely on John O'Shea, a player who was tipped for the top from his mid-teens and has spent his entire career on the books of an English Premier League club after coming through the ranks at Manchester United to assemble an impressive medal connection.

He lined up alongside Keogh, a 29-year-old from Essex with Irish roots who didn't make a single appearance for his first club Stoke and was sent on loan to Iceland. Keogh then relocated to Bristol City, where he didn't set the world alight either; he was dispatched to Wycombe, Huddersfield, Cheltenham and Carlisle for temporary spells.

A permanent move to the latter set him on his way and from there he progressed to Coventry and Derby where he is now regarded as one of the top centre-halves in the Championship.

Keogh deserved luck on a major stage. His out-of-character Wembley play-off final error cost Derby dearly in the 2014 Championship play-off decider.

Some of the gloss from his courageous showing against the Germans, with a head bandage adding to the magic, was taken away by a late miss in Warsaw that could have secured automatic qualification for Ireland.

If the play-off had gone the other way, he might have been remembered for the wrong reasons. But when it came to the crunch, Keogh showed his quality by keeping his composure in Zenica and marking Edin Dzeko out of the Dublin joust.

Team-mates were quick to point out that the popular member of the dressing room should be regarded as one of the heroes.

Chris Shields

There's a running joke between the versatile Dundalk midfielder and the local media that cover the club. Every time Shields is involved in a noteworthy success, he is asked to compare it with the memories of the 2012 season. After the Lilywhites completed the double at the Aviva Stadium, the question popped up and he joked that it would probably be asked if Dundalk went on to win the Champions League.

For Dundalk, the significance of 2012 is that it was the last season before Stephen Kenny took control.

They were blessed to avoid relegation, with Monaghan's withdrawal from the league giving a poor group an 11th-place finish and a play-off with Waterford which they managed to scrape through.

The Oriel faithful were expecting to wave goodbye to every member of that team and few tears would have been shed if Shields departed, as he struggled badly that season and clashed with a supporter coming off the pitch as tempers frayed following another loss.

Kenny decided to retain him, however, and the Dubliner has grown into one of the top midfielders in the country.

His work rate and unselfishness has made him a fan favourite and those qualities are emphasised by the fact that he was the only regular outfield player not to register a goal as they broke the all-time League of Ireland scoring record (they did allow him to score a penalty in the Leinster Senior Cup).

He stands out from the others on this list in the sense that his talents were already fully appreciated this time 12 months ago. That said, his role in the defeat of Cork at the renovated Lansdowne showcased the range of his attributes as he coped with a sudden relocation from midfield to right-back to knuckle down and do his bit for the cause.

His tale is a microcosm of Dundalk's rise to the summit of the domestic game.

Shane Keegan

The Laois native was just 29 when he was appointed manager of Wexford Youths in 2011, the culmination of a decade spent climbing up the coaching ladder when he realised that he wouldn't make the grade as a player. His ascent is all the more impressive given that he doesn't exactly hail from a football hotbed. Keegan did a radio interview after he got the job where he spoke of a four-year plan to secure promotion and he achieved that target in some style with Danny Furlong's goals firing the amateur club into the Premier Division for the first time in their history.

His young side started off the year with back-to-back defeats which turned out to the wake-up call they required to embark on the season of their lives.

Keegan's previous job was with FC Carlow and he has also worked in Kilkenny.

Under his stewardship, the Youths have looked to recruit players from the south-east with a view to becoming the focus for football in the region.

Next term will be a challenge and the likelihood is that they will be tipped for relegation, especially as they intend to stick by their amateur ethos which will make their players straightforward targets if they impress rival clubs. You get the sense, however, that Keegan will relish the underdog status.

Either way, he's a name to remember.

BJ Banda

BJ Banda is still a schoolboy. He was born in Johannesburg in 1998, just before the start of the World Cup in France, and moved to Donegal as a toddler. As a youngster lining out for Letterkenny Rovers, he decided to set up a website chronicling his football journey. It would bring a smile to the most cynical face.

Take his description of Letterkenny's 2014 awards ceremony where he turned up to collect the top scorer for the U-16 team.

"The award ceremony was electrifying," he wrote. "A lot of people turned up to cheer their loved ones. Unfortunately, I was alone.

"My mum was home in bed feeling unwell. Feeling sorry for her because she is beating herself up for not having enough strength. We are ok mum. I had a blast."

As Finn Harps launched a promotion challenge, Banda was signed up to add strength to the squad but there was no expectation that the boy was ready to make a quick impact in a man's world.

But his raw ability impressed Ollie Horgan and, when the play-off with Limerick came around, Banda had emerged as a go-to option off the bench.

It ended in storybook fashion when he was sent in for the climax at a packed Finn Park and found the space to dispatch the header that sent the Donegal side back to the top flight.

Instantly, a cult hero was born. Amid the celebrations, he provided the picture of the night; with the emotional youth hopping into the stands to embrace his proud mother.

His journey is only starting.

Irish Independent

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