Monday 26 August 2019

Opportunity knocks for players who can step up a level

Realistic ambitions: Ryan Sweeney Pic: Sportsfile
Realistic ambitions: Ryan Sweeney Pic: Sportsfile

Sean Ryan

With the Republic of Ireland team in a state of transition, it's interesting to see who could be included in a future shake-up. Ryan Sweeney is a centre-back with Noel King's under 21s, while Rory Gaffney is a striker who has never been capped at any level. They are team-mates at League One side Bristol Rovers, with Sweeney on loan from Premier side Stoke City.

But with their team going through a bad spell, their ambitions are more prosaic than the glamour of international fare.

Realistic ambitions: Rory Gaffney Pic: Getty
Realistic ambitions: Rory Gaffney Pic: Getty

"My ultimate ambition is to stay playing as high as possible for as long as possible," explained Gaffney, who has just turned 28 but is only in his third full season in England. "I'm not thinking long-term because a couple of months can decide what I will be doing. What I do next month is decided by what I will do in the next four weeks, so I just think ahead to the next game."

For Sweeney, who is 20, it is all about gaining experience at Bristol Rovers and then seeing what he can do at Stoke. "The quality in the Premier is top drawer, so you take it week by week and it's been tough recently. I've been in and out because of form and international call-ups. When you get the shirt it's up to you to keep hold of it. The next under 21 game is in March so that gives me a chance to get settled. Last season, after I came here in January, I only missed one game."

Sweeney has twice found his place taken when he returned from international duty, while Gaffney, despite being top scorer in pre-season, had to bide his time before getting a run. "To train all week and not to get your reward, that's the most frustrating part of this game," said Gaffney. "Only in the last 10 games did I get a run, and I probably didn't score as much as I should then."

After starting his career at Wimbledon, Sweeney was signed by Stoke in the summer of 2016, and one can't help but wonder if, looking at the first team players there, he felt he was as good as them?

"I've not really seen the first team much," he replied, "but I went away to Switzerland with them and played two friendlies in pre-season, against a Swiss second division team, and 35 minutes against Young Boys, and I could see that the standard is ridiculously high, with their technical ability and know-how, but not as physical as League One.

"It was a good experience to play 85 minutes over the two games, but I missed a good one - they played Monaco on the Saturday, and I had to come back and play 90 minutes against Leek Town to get a full game in my legs! Then we went to Germany and played St Pauli before 15-20,000. It helps you get a gauge as to where you are, and I think you need at least two to three games to stay at that level. People don't realise that, at training, players like Joe Allen and (Xherdan) Shaqiri make so few mistakes, and that's the standard.

"I've another year at Stoke after this year, so when I get to the summer, I'll see where I'm at. Wade Elliott, our under 23s manager, has been down to watch me in a few games, so they are keeping an eye on me."

When I asked them if they felt Martin O'Neill should keep an eye on League One for players, Gaffney answered with an adamant, "No," adding that "if you are playing in League One, how could you be considered above someone in the Championship, unless you go on a crazy scoring run, and in that respect Eoin Doyle might be worth casting an eye on." Prior to yesterday's game, Oldham striker Doyle had scored 11 goals in 12 games, while on loan from Preston.

Gaffney also made the point that people who criticised Bohemians midfielder Fuad Sule for considering a move to League Two basement club Barnet "didn't have an idea what they were talking about".

Asked to elaborate, he explained: "After playing League of Ireland for a number of years, I went to League Two Cambridge, where I didn't really play much, but it was a full-time league, with big clubs like Portsmouth, who were pulling in 15-17,000, so there were much greater opportunities to be spotted and you were paid for 52 weeks.

"Overall it's a much stronger league, with the support it gets, the profile and the stadia. Plus, you have the personal experience of playing in a different country."

Do they not look at international players and think, 'I'm as good as him'? "No, not really," was Gaffney's immediate response, while Sweeney said: "They're there for a reason, and I'm not there for a reason."

Gaffney, who signed a two-year contract extension last summer, also made the point that he wouldn't be able to compare "with those lads and would have to be scoring goals in the Championship before that would happen".

Sweeney, who qualifies for Ireland through grandparents from Mullingar, has been capped at 18s and 19s as well as 21s, and he sees a future for some of his under 21 team-mates. "Declan Rice prefers centre-back, but he's so comfortable on the ball that he can play defensive midfield."

He is the first on his list, joined by another West Ham midfielder Josh Cullen, currently on loan at Bolton, Conor Ronan (Wolves), who was on the 19s with Sweeney, and Olamide Shodipo (QPR), who has been injured, but should be back for the game in March.

"The sort of level we have, with two midfield players in the Championship, we can play nice stuff," he said, "and we're very compact." He doesn't rule out progress to the play-offs, which would be a fine achievement for King's team.

Gaffney, meanwhile, on limited outings has already scored as many goals (six) as last season. The redhead from Tuam is liable to catch fire given a run of games, and could yet shake up that shallow pool of Irish striking talent.

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