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Cash and grab

A FIVE-MINUTE cameo as a sub against Aston Villa earlier this month was not a major occasion for Waterford man Daryl Murphy.

It was overall his 121st game for Sunderland since he joined the club from Waterford United in 2005, and it was possibly one of his last games in the Sunderland shirt as the 26-year-old is eager to leave Sunderland, at least on loan, to get first-team football.

But Murphy's brief run-out against Villa, his first Premier League appearance of the season after a couple of earlier games in the Carling Cup, was significant in another way, as it brought to six the number of Irish players who came from the League of Ireland and had made appearances in league games in England's top flight this season (it's actually a group of seven, if you include Burnley man Robbie Blake, as he had a brief spell in Ireland, on loan to Waterford United in 1998).

But now, players like Kevin Doyle (St Pats and Cork City), Stephen Ward (Bohemians), Seamus Coleman (Sligo Rovers), Daryl Murphy (Waterford United), Keith Fahey (St Pats and Drogheda United) and James O'Shea (Bray Wanderers and Galway United) have all played Premier League football for their clubs in England this season, having learned their trade in the car crash that is the League of Ireland.

Two more former LOI men will be with Premier League clubs across the water in the second half of the season as Burnley's Kevin Long (ex-Cork City) and Wolves keeper Aaron McCarey (ex-Monaghan United) have already agreed their transfers and will officially join their new clubs when the transfer window opens in the new year.

Not since the late 1990s, when players like Curtis Fleming (ex-Pats), Roy Keane (ex-Cobh) and Michael Reddy (ex-Kilkenny) were playing in what was then called the Premiership have so many LOI old boys been competing in England's top flight.

And a league which has been battered by recession and disastrous financial planning is bracing itself for more departures -- sadly not all of them to top clubs, with a number of out-of-contract players from Ireland hoping to secure any form of contract, whether or not that ends up being in the lower reaches of the game inn England and Scotland, others going further afield with one player from UCD keen to try his luck in Hungary.

At the end of the 2006 season, when the league-winning Shelbourne squad was ripped apart by the club's financial collapse, the League of Ireland suffered a modern day flight of earls, as 15 of the league's best players moved to the UK in the space of a month, most of them to decent clubs in the Championship in England or the SPL.

Less than three years on, only Wolves man Stephen Ward and Dundee United's Sean Dillon are at the same clubs and prospering).

So January 2010 will see a further exodus of talent, as clubs like Cork City and Derry City go to the wall while others like St Pats make severe cutbacks.

Former Bohemians keeper Brian Murphy is already training with Ipswich Town, to make sure he's ready for first team action once he's eligible from January 1 on, and his former Dalymount Park team-mate Gary Deegan could be on the opposing side next month when Ipswich take on Coventry City (January 16), as Deegan this week completed his move to Coventry in a deal worth an initial €90,000 to Bohs (Murphy went on a free transfer).

Despite the credit crunch across the water, English clubs will return to try and pick up something from the Irish bargain bin in the coming weeks.

Clubs like Coventry (who bought Deegan) and Hartlepool (interested in Cork City's Joe Gamble) will come back for more because they know what they are getting: experienced players at the right age (early or mid twenties) who won't suffer due to a language barrier and can go straight into the first team without any weaning period (expect Deegan and Murphy to at least be in the first team squads with Coventry and Ipswich once they are eligible to play next month.

The case of Keith Fahey will also make managers of other UK clubs consider spending some money in Ireland over the next month. This time last year, Birmingham City (then a Championship club) paid St Pats €350,000 for Fahey, hoping that in time, after a period of settling in over a few months, he could join the first team squad and be ready for first team action when the new season began the following summer.

But from the time he first kicked a ball in training with Birmingham, Fahey made an instant impression on Birmingham boss Alex McLeish, the players and the coaching staff. Red tape and suspension issues meant that Fahey was delayed before he could make his debut for Birmingham, but once he did, he settled straight into the team and in the second half of last season, played in every game for which he was eligible.

McLeish recently said that buying Fahey from Pats was the best piece of business he has done as Birmingham manager (McLeish returned to the LOI a few months later to sign Galway's Jay O'Shea).

"The most significant one (deal) was Keith Fahey. This season I have been delighted with the group of signings I have made," McLeish said when asked what his best transfer move was.

"Some of the younger ones have got the potential to be great players in Birmingham's history.

"But Keith was significant because he changed our form and our quality, he enhanced our quality. He has been significant and I sincerely believe he can be part of the Ireland squad."

Roy Keane is another fan of the League of Ireland as a source of talent. As Sunderland manager he signed two LOI players (Cork duo Roy O'Donovan and David Meyler), returned to Cork City when in charge of Ipswich to sign Colin Healy as well as bringing in Brian Murphy from Bohs, and he's still tracking others in the senior game here.

"I know there has been a lot of talk about Gary Deegan from Bohs, who's a good player, and we've obviously signed Brian Murphy, who has come into the club in the last week or two and is doing absolutely fantastic.

"It wouldn't surprise me because there are some very good players in the League of Ireland without a shadow of a doubt and they could come here and play at Championship or League One level comfortably," said Keane, also aware of the harsh financial realities in the LOI, which handed him his senior start in football, playing his first game for Cobh Ramblers in a 2-0 defeat to Kilkenny City in August 1989.

"Cork have been struggling for years now. They've been in court a few times. We've done our bit, we bought Colin Healy, we played there in pre-season," Keane reflected.

"I don't want to see League of Ireland clubs struggling because they're all good clubs. You talk about the glamour of football but you need these clubs, the local sport. They're so important to town centres and city centres. You think about the £70m (€78m) went out to agents last year - what these clubs could do with just a small part of that," Keane added.

The €90,000 which Bohs have pocketed from the sale of Deegan to Coventry will help the situation at Dalymount Park, but expect a few more moves from the LOI before the window closes at the end of January.

Limerick City striker Stephen O'Flynn (27) is on his way to League Two side Northampton Town after scoring 14 goals in 13 games.

The winter sale is on.