Monday 23 April 2018

Comment: Just like our rugby heroes, the appeal of Ireland’s soccer team expands to represent four corners

Matt Doherty during Ireland training. Photo: Sportsfile
Matt Doherty during Ireland training. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There was a time when the teams for the match at the end of Ireland training sessions were divided along a simple line. Dubs versus culchies, with overseas-born players lumped in with the latter to ensure parity.

Numbers were never a concern for the capital contingent. Quality was never much of a problem either.

Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne and Damien Duff gave them a strong base. Go back to Jack Charlton's early days and you had Ronnie Whelan, Kevin Moran and Niall Quinn.

In the search for a random example, just flip back a decade and the experimental 28-man list that Giovanni Trapattoni named for his first gathering in Portugal. A dozen of that party were from Baile átha Cliath, and the ratio was similar for every other squad around that time.

The picture has changed now.

Martin O'Neill has brought a transitional squad to Turkey this week, and the striking feature of his 30-man long list was the fact that just four Dubliners were named. Jeff Hendrick, Alan Judge and the uncapped Matt Doherty and Enda Stevens made the cut, but they are outnumbered.

Cork's representation stands at five with Colin Doyle, Kevin Long, David Meyler, Conor Hourihane and Alan Browne. John Egan was also part of the provisional panel.

Granted, Robbie Brady will come straight back from injury into the squad and Stephen Ward was rested for this trip too.

Glenn Whelan's time appears to be over, however, and Wes Hoolahan has opted to step away. The range of accents in the dressing room is diversifying with Euro 2020 in the sights.

There's a strong power base drawn from the North-West now with Seamus Coleman the strongest voice backed by Derry duo James McClean and Shane Duffy with Eunan O'Kane another product from that neck of the woods. The row over players born inside Northern Irish territory has cranked up a notch because of the high quality coaching and development in that part of the island.

There's more to come too. Derry City's Aaron McEneff declared for the Republic and he has plenty of ability but what's really hurting the IFA is the fact that his younger brother Jordan, who is at Arsenal, sees the tricolour as the flag for his international future. A name to note.

John O'Shea and the Hunt brothers reflected the strength of the game in Waterford and the arrival of Derrick Williams on the scene is keeping the tradition going and Manchester United starlet Lee O'Connor is progressing. Seán Maguire is from neighbouring Kilkenny and is vying for a starting spot with Tipp's Shane Long, another player from a hurling stronghold.

Out west, Galway players had been absent from the scene for some time before David Forde and Greg Cunningham emerged. Daryl Horgan is present this week and QPR's Ryan Manning is knocking on the door also.

In total, 10 counties are represented in the 25, one more than the spread in Ireland's starting XV for the Grand Slam decider with England last Saturday.

"The spread in the group is brilliant now," said Maguire yesterday. "There's a good team spirit there now, with players from all different parts of the country."

He mentioned his pal Darragh Lenihan who is seeking to become the first Meathman to represent Ireland, although he did learn his trade in the schoolboy scene in Dublin with Belvedere.

The game is strong at that level in the city, although these are fractious times with the FAI's introduction of national underage leagues giving control over to the League of Ireland.

It has forced the traditional nurseries to enter into partnerships, and there remains unhappiness over how the change was introduced into a competitive sporting environment.

Dublin GAA's dominance is a product of their presence on the ground and their development work is ensuring that talented youngsters are committing to that code. On top of that, Leinster are a major draw in certain areas.

The deeper analysis draws in societal factors and the clichéd old line that Dublin isn't producing street footballers any more and there is a certain truth behind it. Damien Duff has strongly made that point.

To call the trend a Dublin problem is to ignore what other parts of the country are doing right. Maybe they have just caught up.

The legacy of the Charlton years was the growth of the sport to new areas and there's a drip down element here.

It also mirrors the balance of power in the League of Ireland where Dublin clubs are finding it hard to exert the same influence with the geographical spread of the new ten-team league much healthier than it was when the format was last in operation.

That will help players in the relevant areas, especially with the aforementioned leagues urging senior sides to identify the best talent in the locality earlier with a new U-13 league on the agenda to follow the U-15 initiative.

The crop that is present in Turkey have emerged from the old set-up, but the changes going forward will certainly give youths in remoter parts of Ireland the opportunity to come into contact with elite players in their age group at an earlier stage.

Dublin is still producing good players, but the stranglehold over the Irish dressing room has been loosened. The make-up of O'Neill's current panel is not an anomaly. Instead, it's a window to the future.

Irish Independent

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