It was the final piece of evidence, if it was needed, of the disappearance of the Irish Premier League footballer, proof that 3pm on a Saturday, when England’s elite go out to play, is no longer a playground for players from this country.
In the six games played in the Premier League last Saturday, not one man from the Republic of Ireland started a game, the only Irish involvement that day coming when Adam Idah came off the bench for two minutes, in a defeat for Norwich City.
There were other weekend outings for some of the boys in green, as defenders Ciaran Clark (Friday) and Shane Duffy (Sunday) picked up league starts. But the fact that not one player eligible for selection for Stephen Kenny’s squad could get the nod to start in seven Premier League games on a busy Saturday in September brings home – very starkly – the shallowness of the pool of talent right now.
Irish football can’t remain a prisoner of the past, and it serves no use to Kenny, his players or the next generation to bemoan the fact that the Liverpool-Manchester United fixture, which at times saw six players from the Republic on the field, has been an
Irish-free zone for over a decade since John O’Shea left Old Trafford.
But a look back in time can help to show just how vastly the landscape has changed. On the same weekend in 2011, Giovanni Trapattoni had 21 of his eligible players play in the Premier League, 19 of them in the starting XI for their clubs. That day alone, five Irish strikers started in the Premier League (Leon Best, Simon Cox, Shane Long, Kevin Doyle and Jon Walters). Now, Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly struggle for game-time. Go back another 10 years and in mid-September 2001, as the world was grappling with what had happened to the Twin Towers, Mick McCarthy feasted on scouting reports on 17 Irish-eligible players to appear in the Premier League that weekend.
September 2021 is about as grim as it’s ever been in terms of Irishmen at the top table of the English game. That cold shoulder spans the generations: last week veterans Shane Long (Southampton), Darren Randolph (West Ham) and Jeff Hendrick (Newcastle) didn’t even make the match-day squad, Matt Doherty has played just seven minutes of Premier League football this term, while last weekend young defenders Nathan Collins (Burnley) and Andrew Omobamidele (Norwich) watched from the bench as their teams lost at home, waiting for a nod that didn’t come.
There will be crumbs of comfort this week: when Norwich City face Liverpool in the League Cup tomorrow, Omobamidele and Idah should start for a side who will try out Caoimhín Kelleher in goal as Alisson is rested. “Ali didn’t play one time in the League Cup I think, so I think it’s quite clear Caoimhín will start,” said Liverpool coach Pepijn Lijnders.
A big day, then, for Kelleher but not a major event for the Reds, evidence of that in the presence of Lijnders for
pre-match media duties instead of Jurgen Klopp.
The League Cup tomorrow should also open a door at Burnley for Collins, yet to make his league debut for the club since they spent £17m (€19.8m) on him. The only time that Sean Dyche’s side have kept a clean sheet in six games this season, in the last round of the Cup against Newcastle, Collins was in the side, hopefully an omen for him.
While old heads like Randolph and Long are stuck in limbo, in the remaining years of a lucrative contract with a Premier club whose manager doesn’t want to use them, the inability to take steady steps is a frustration for players, and Kenny. But also for other national team bosses from ‘these islands’: for all the worry over the lack of Premier exposure for players from the Republic (and we have eight), Wales and Northern Ireland had just four of their players feature in the Premier League this season.
Old Trafford and Elland Road are no longer relevant for the Ireland boss, but Brighton could prove to be something of a balm to Irish pains. The revival of Duffy under Graham Potter can only be admired as Potter’s faith, and Duffy’s work, have helped rescue a career which was, a few months ago, heading into a worrying downward spiral.
“I think he knows he’s in a good place, with good people around him that want to help him, and he has taken massive steps I think in terms of reflecting on his experiences previously,” Potter said.
Potter also discounted Evan Ferguson’s age (still only 16) and used him in the last round of the League Cup. With team-mate Connolly struggling for fitness and form, Potter could see the League Cup tie with Swansea as a way for Connolly to blow away the cobwebs and kick-start his season, but if he’s feeling brave he could even start Ferguson tomorrow night.
The last underage Irish player to move to England since Brexit’s impact came into effect and closed that door until players turn 18, Ferguson is a nod to a possible bright future while Duffy’s revival shows the danger of writing off an experienced player too soon.
League Cup minutes for Brighton: small crumbs in a time of famine but that’s what Ireland has to accept is our fate for the foreseeable future, where Saturdays at Anfield and Stamford Bridge will be Irish-free zones.