Why FIFA is paying to research stories of emigrant Irish players
An Irish academic is digging into the fascinating lives of our football hopefuls
Cross-channel professional football has changed beyond recognition since Eamon Dunphy was scouted by Manchester United 50-odd years ago. But in one respect, at least, it has stayed the same: the spectre of homesickness remains as acute for today's young talent as it did then.
Conor Curran, a social historian with a keen interest in football, says a common thread among players he has spoken with – irrespective of generation – is the culture shock they experienced when moving to a new country as a teen and attendant loneliness that stalked them in those early months.
"The ones who go over first when they are in their 20s tend to find the adjustment that much easier than those in their teens," Curran says. "But professional football is built around finding players when they are young and even though it might be good advice for some teens to wait until they are that bit older before trying their luck with a cross-channel club, try telling that to a 15-year-old if Man United came calling."
He got a small inkling of the homesickness that young Irish footballers feel when he played for Dongeal in an underage tournament in Wales.
"I was only away for a week, but it was like another world having come from rural Donegal," he says.
"I also felt very home sick – so if I felt that way after seven days, I can only imagine what it must be like for a teenager who has to spend months away from home at a stretch."
Curran (36) – a part-time tutor at the history department of St Patrick's College, Dublin – is well placed to talk about the phenomenon of home-grown players plying their trade in the country that gave the world the beautiful game as he is currently working on a special FIFA-sponsored survey researching the migration of Irish from Ireland to England.
"I'm surprised by the fact that it hasn't been the subject of academic research before when you consider how important English football is for so many Irish people and how many players from here have played in the Premier League and football leagues."
The numbers certainly stack up. According to Curran, in the years between 1945 and 2010, 498 players from the Republic and 405 from Northern Ireland had professional contracts with English clubs and played first-team league football.
"Those figures account for those players who got professional contracts," Curran says, "but obviously do not include the unquantifiable number of Irish people who had trials at English clubs. That figure would run to the thousands and it would be impossible to verify because there aren't records for everyone who was trialled at every club."
Of those players from the Republic, a disproportionate number – 65pc – hail from Dublin, with a further 10pc from Cork.
"There's a very good reason for that," he says.
"There has been a long history of structured soccer leagues in those cities, unlike counties such as Donegal which didn't have a regulated set-up in place until 1971 when the GAA's (foreign games) ban was lifted.
"Also, the scouting network wouldn't have been as strong outside the urban areas so there's likelihood that strong prospects were missed out on.
In the course of interviews with contemporary players and their predecessors, Curran has discovered that the culture of English football clubs can be as tough and macho today as it was in less glamorous times.
'Some of the players would have had to put up with anti-Irish comments but would shrug them off as 'banter'," he says.
"It would seem as though much of what passes as acceptable banter at football clubs, wouldn't be tolerated in other professions."
Curran says that while some players enjoy a long career, many Irish players find their days in English football are fleeting at best.
On average, Irish players manage six seasons in the English game and usually play for two clubs.
And he has come up with a sobering statistic for those parents who imagine their boy will carve out a long career with the club that signs them on youth terms.
Some 85pc of Irish players signed as teens are not with the same club three years later.
"They're either moved on to another club or get thrown to one side," he says.
"The attrition rate is very high. But that's the reality of football – for every Roy Keane, there are numerous guys who dreamt of the big time but didn't have what it takes, or the luck, to make it."
Football is littered with such people.