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Matt edges verdict in a mixed year for the Irish


Matt Doherty celebrates his goal against Tottenham last season

Matt Doherty celebrates his goal against Tottenham last season

Matt Doherty celebrates his goal against Tottenham last season

On balance, it could be described as a year of progress in terms of Irish Premier League representation.

This time 14 months ago, we were reflecting on a campaign where just 15 players with a tricolour next to their name saw action and three of those had suffered relegation (Cyrus Christie, Harry Arter and Greg Cunningham) with another leaving their club (Stephen Ward).

However, the Irish contribution this term has swelled to 21 and only one is Championship-bound next year. The rest should all be reasonably secure in terms of starting the next campaign the top level.

On these pages, we have highlighted how 13 of those players have scored. And, crucially, the contingent involves six players eligible for U-21 level. Stephen Kenny might just be timing his run right.

At the end of the every Premier League cycle, we rank the Irish players from top to bottom based on their performances. Status can influence positioning.

For example, if a teenage right-back had featured 26 times - like Seamus Coleman has - and performed to the same level then they'd be riding higher on account of the surprise factor. But it hasn't been a vintage campaign by his standards. Players have to be judged by their own expectations to some degree.

This was a year that all of the protagonists will never forget, but the top three players were tough to split as they shone in front of crowds and behind closed doors.

1. Matt Doherty (Wolves)

Appearances: 36 (32 starts)

Goals: 4

It is good to have a choice for top spot and the reason Doherty gets the nod is that he's a very important player for a Wolves side that was arguably good enough to take a Champions League spot if they'd just been a small bit more efficient. The regular provider of goals and assists managed to maintain a high level even though the Europa League placed a strain on the Wolves squad. The best days may still be ahead.

2. Enda Stevens (Sheffield United)

Appearances: 38 (38 starts)

Goals: 2

From one wing-back to another. Sheffield United were the Irish story of the campaign and it's a challenge to establish a hierarchy. Stevens maybe hasn't hit the heights since the resumption, yet it's worth remembering just how good he was before Christmas and he's our only Premier League ever-present this term. He can now definitively call himself a Premier League player.

3. John Egan (Sheffield United)

Appearances: 36 (36 starts)

Goals: 2

The son of the GAA legend of the same name is very much a star in his own right now. His goalscoring exploits in the latter weeks of the campaign boosted his profile, yet he's handled himself well across the piece in his first taste of this level. Sheffield United's back three relies on Egan's presence and Stephen Kenny is excited about working with a player that can stride out and pick a pass.

4. Shane Long (Southampton)

Appearances: 26 (15 starts)

Goals: 2

The positioning of Long may raise eyebrows, but the context is important. At the start of the campaign, it looked as though the clock was ticking on the Tipp native's Premier League run. He was also frozen out of the Irish picture. However, the 33-year-old responded to the challenge to earn a new contract, even though his goal return remains low. He was actually on a mini-streak before the lockdown.

5. David McGoldrick (Sheffield United)

Appearances: 28 (22 starts)

Goals: 2

This continues the theme of Irish strikers who are perhaps more appreciated by teammates than by punters. McGoldrick had to wait a long time to break his Premier League duck and that was due reward for the days where his unselfish work allowed others to grab headlines. He had to accept stints out of the side, and the next battle is to survive the next phase of Sheffield United's progression.

6. Michael Obafemi (Southampton)

Appearances: 21 (8 starts)

Goals: 3

Obafemi has scored important goals away to Chelsea and Manchester United and that's a nice entry to have on the CV for a 20-year-old; he was trusted to make an impact in games of significance. He's grown in stature this year, albeit with management reminding him consistently that he's got work to do in order to manage the physical demands of the level he has reached very quickly. His Irish story has barely started.

7. Aaron Connolly (Brighton)

Appearances: 24 (14 starts)

Goals: 3

Connolly's brace against Spurs was the Irish moment of 2019/'20, the confidence of youth apparent in his sumptuous solo goal to wrap things up. Considering the Galwegian hadn't played a league game for the club a year ago, he's taken giant strides but the only slight frustration is that he didn't add another goal until Sunday's finale. That effort showcased his capabilities on a going day and there are signs that his all-round game is developing.

8. James McCarthy (Crystal Palace)

Appearances: 33 (16 starts)

Goals: 0

McCarthy has played more football than in the previous three seasons combined and scaling the 30-game mark is a significant personal achievement for the Glaswegian. The jury is out on his move to Crystal Palace with a number of pundits praising his work-rate and spotting encouraging signs, yet it appears fans remain to be convinced. Maybe a goal or two would alter perceptions. But he can actually enjoy his summer break this year.

9. Seamus Coleman (Everton)

Appearances: 27 (21 starts)

Goals: 0

Coleman is judged by his own standards and the story of his contribution weaves in with Everton's journey. He lost his place to Djibril Sidibe in the last days of Marco Silva, but Carlo Ancelotti has tended to lean towards the club captain since his arrival although he continues to sit the occasional game out. An excellent display in June's Merseyside derby was a reminder he's got a lot to offer.

10. Conor Hourihane (Aston Villa)

Appearances: 27 (18 starts)

Goals: 3

It will be interesting to hear Hourihane's reflections on his season because he sets high standards for himself. On one hand, he's tasted top-flight football and made notable contributions, especially from dead-ball situations. On the other, he was dropped for periods and seems to face questions around physicality at the highest level but there's no doubting his resilience and he played his way into the equation for their escape.

11. Jeff Hendrick (Burnley)

Appearances: 24 (22 starts)

Goals: 2

The mirth that accompanied a link with AC Milan was predictable but disrespectful. Hendrick hasn't done well for Ireland in recent years, but was selected regularly for a team that finished comfortably in the top half of the table. His year was cut short by his decision to capitalise on his contractual status and there are plenty of options available. Kenny wants to see him feature centrally; at Burnley he was trusted to fill gaps without asserting control.

12. Ciaran Clark (Newcastle)

Appearances: 14 (14 starts)

Goals: 2

Clark would likely have taken higher billing were it not for the season-ending injury he suffered in February. Steve Bruce turned down approaches for Clark before it all kicked off and the 30-year-old had slotted into the squad player mode before seizing his chance in October and regaining his status with club and country.

13. Adam Idah (Norwich City)

Appearances: 12 (1 start)

Goals: 0

Throw the FA Cup into the mix here and you've got a memorable hat-trick at Preston to bump up Idah's standing. Those heroics put a stop to loan move talk, and he did get to start a match at Old Trafford before reverting to the role of impact sub for the run-in where he managed to show both his potential and his inexperience. Relegation for Norwich may actually work out ok for him in the long run.

14. Will Smallbone (Southampton)

Appearances: 9 (4 starts)

Goals: 0

The English-born Irish underage international used cup opportunities to advance his league claims too and he's very much played his way into Ralph Hasenhüttl's first team picture. His club boss rates his technical qualities with Smallbone equally comfortable on either foot and able to function as a playmaking number ten although the Saints prefer to use him in a deeper role. Kenny says his immediate Irish future is at U-21 level.

15. Kevin Long (Burnley)

Appearances: 8 (6 starts)

Goals: 0

There will be suspicions of cut and paste around descriptions of Long's season. He remains a valued squad member at Burnley but doesn't get to play enough games to make a real impact. He's at a solid Premier League club and is clearly an excellent professional yet it's hard to say much more than that.

16. Shane Duffy (Brighton)

Appearances: 19 (12 starts)

Goals: 1

There's no disguising that it was a tough year for Duffy given he was picked 35 times last season. Graham Potter's frequent use of a back three and his preference for ball-playing centre-halves has placed Duffy under scrutiny. That said, there were games where he shone and it would be rash to write him off. The sudden loss of his father Brian in May will have put any football disappointments in perspective.

17. Robbie Brady (Burnley)

Appearances: 17 (5 starts)

Goals: 1

Kenny rates Brady highly and is desperate for a Burnley revival for the Dubliner. However, he's a bench option for Sean Dyche, often functioning as an understudy for the talented Dwight McNeil. He's made a couple of decent contributions since the restart and Burnley have taken up the option to extend his contract by a year. However, this is a season that has passed him by in truth.

18. Callum Robinson (Sheffield United)

Appearances: 16 (9 starts)

Goals: 1

A tough one to address because Robinson did make a Premier League debut and score at Stamford Bridge but then Chris Wilder felt able to sacrifice his summer signing in the January loan market so that puts a significant asterisk next to his contribution. Robinson did make a contribution to West Brom's promotion tilt but he's got questions to answer now.

19. Troy Parrott (Tottenham)

Appearances: 2 (0 starts)

Goals: 0

We need to be patient with Parrott and there's every chance that Jose Mourinho will be gone within a year so he just needs to keep cool too. The 18-year-old still has a lot of growing up to do and Spurs are wary of sending him out on loan as they feel the Dubliner will only thrive in the right environment.

20. Mark Travers (Bournemouth)

Appearances: 1 (1 start)

Thrust into the spotlight with a pair of appearances at the end of last season but Bournemouth favoured another young 'keeper, Aaron Ramsdale, across their relegation battle with Travers restricted to a solitary league outing and cup fare.

21. Darren Randolph (West Ham United)

Appearances: 2 (2 starts)

You would need to reside in an ivory tower to take issue with Randolph's move to West Ham. It likely made sense to leave Middlesbrough from a financial and lifestyle perspective, but it was no surprise that he returned as number two given the regard in which Lukasz Fabianski is held. This is a concern as one of Ireland's most important players is now an understudy.