The next generation
Budding stars face long and winding road to get chance on big stage
IT'S Carling Cup week, a time where Premier League managers generally experiment with an eye to the future.
Traditionally, the competition is a stage for Irish youngsters to take their baby-steps into the senior game.
A young John O'Shea made his Manchester United debut in the League Cup back in 1999, three years before he made a meaningful impression at first-team level.
Similarly, Shay Given made his senior bow as a late sub for Blackburn against Brentford over 14 years ago.
Darron Gibson is still considered someone with a lot to learn, but yesterday marked the five-year anniversary of his first Manchester United appearance, a comfortable win over Barnet in the same competition.
Of course, involvement in the least important domestic competition is a testing of the waters rather than a guarantee of greatness. Twenty-four hours before Gibson's Old Trafford experience, Anthony Stokes made his only appearance for Arsenal as a late sub in a Carling Cup win at Sunderland. He was joined on the pitch by another Dubliner, Patrick Cregg -- a midfielder who had experience from 12 months earlier.
Both now ply their trade in Scotland, with Celtic's Stokes having a far better chance of returning to the top table than Cregg, who plies his trade with St Mirren and was a trialist with Shamrock Rovers during the summer.
Of course, Giovanni Trapattoni has his own Carling Cup early in 2011, the Carling Four Nations Cup to be precise, which brings Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland together. While commercial needs may result in the organisers being keen to push the tournament's competitive element, the reality is that the exercise should represent an opportunity to experiment.
Trapattoni's focus for now is on European qualification, so the only teenagers likely to be involved -- barring a remarkable breakthrough over the winter -- are Greg Cunningham and James McCarthy, who already have caps to their name.
Nevertheless, with a view to the long road, we take a look at emerging Irish stars who, just to make you feel old, were born after the exploits of a remarkable crop of players in Italia '90.
The experiences of the likes of Stokes and Cregg, and other names like Stephen Bradley, Graham Barrett, Richie Sadlier, John Paul Kelly, Mark Rossiter and Richie Ryan prove that more can go wrong than right from here.
Irish people always seem to have extremely high hopes about the next generation that never come to fruition due to a combination of bad luck and bad decisions -- not to mention the extreme competition which now exists at academy level across the water.
The irony is that some of the more outstanding talents to emerge in recent years are grounded late developers who weren't burdened with expectation or lucre from an early age, with Kevin Doyle and Seamus Coleman obvious examples.
Above, we pinpoint an emerging XI of Irish talent whose development will be crucial if the senior team wish to regularly qualify for major tournaments again.