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'We're ready for Spain dogfight'

IT'S A MATTER of roses, roses all the way when you're a Spanish international footballer. Players like Iniesta, Fabregas, Sergio Ramos and David Silva have spent their entire careers playing at the top level, a steady diet of Champions League, La Liga and Premier League football.

That's not the case for Ireland's squad here in Poland, where we have a batch of lads who know how to get down and dirty, who know about life at the bottom end of football's food chain.

“Iniesta and Mata are great players, but I don't think they've ever been to the places we've been to in our careers,” jokes Sean St Legder, one of the few players -s indeed possibly the only one - of all 368 players at Euro 2012 who has never played top flight football in any country.

The jokes about €30million-rated players like Mata are standard - he looks great in a Champions League game on a fine night on a great pitch but I'd like to see him at Northampton Town on a cold November night.

St Ledger laughs at the notion, but the lower leagues of the English game is a factor that he still retains respect for. His introduction to league football was for Peterborough United against Wycombe in the old Third Division back in 2003, and he spent four seasons in the bottom two divisions of the English game before stepping up with his move to Championship side Preston.

Keith Andrews also played in England's bottom tier, from his time with MK Dons. “I never gave up hope of playing for my country but when you're in League Two, playing against Accrington Stanley away, it does dwindle a bit,” he has remarked.

Back in December 2006, the occasion was an English third division game between Carlisle United and Brentford. El Clasico it ain't but on that occasion a meeting of future Ireland internationals Keiren Westwood (in goal for Carlisle) and Simon Cox (a sub for Brentford).

Indeed Ireland are also unusual among the teams at Euro 2012 in having two players who played club foot

ball in the non-league scene: Westwood had a spell in the Conference with Carlisle after he was let go by Manchester City while David Forde's time at West ham included a spell on loan to Conference side Barnet.

Even when Spain's players are sent out on loan to gain experience they head for the comfy confines of Barcelona's B team, about as far from Bury as you can get.

“Spain are a brilliant side,” St Ledger reflects now ahead of tomorrow's clash with Spain. “I have worked my way up through the leagues and I have yet to play in the Premier League, whereas these boys in the Spanish side play in La Liga and in the Champions League all the time.

“It's the kind of game you dream about, where you get to test yourself against the best to see how you can do. “It's such a big game for us now. It's hard to know how Spain will react to their draw against Italy on the first day.

“Maybe they'll be a bit down after only drawing a game they'd been expected to win, or maybe they will be really fired up to play us. We can't worry about them, we can only look to ourselves, we have a great team spirit in the side, today is a disappointing one for us as we have lost but we'll bounce back. It's a huge honour for us all to represent our country at a major finals, we wanted to give the fans something to really cheer about and hopefully we can do that in the next game against the Spanish.”