Monday 11 December 2017

Ireland's finest no longer guests at the top table

Stokes our sole Champions League representative as English heavyweights look elsewhere for talent in worrying -- and debilitating -- trend, writes Garry Doyle

Celtic's Anthony Stokes
Celtic's Anthony Stokes
Celtic’s Anthony Stokes was the only Irish player to take part in the group stages of the Champions League REUTERS

Garry Doyle

Congo, Moldova, Costa Rica, Algeria, Iceland, Egypt, Japan, USA and Australia. What is the common link?

They all had more representatives than Ireland in the group stages of this year's Champions League, whose sole presence in world football's most significant club competition was provided by Anthony Stokes.

Not that Stokes saw much of the action. After appearing in the early group games, he was a substitute for the concluding two, getting just nine minutes of action in Celtic's humiliation at the Nou Camp.

If only Ireland's problems ended there. In fact, it represents the tip of the iceberg.

A tournament that was once decorated with Irish winners, from Shay Brennan and tony dunne to Steve Finnan, is now one where our players barely get an invitation to the party -- never mind the podium.

It's getting that way in the Premier League too. Ever since John O'Shea, Robbie Brady and Darron Gibson left Old Trafford, England's top six clubs -- Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool -- have been Irish-free zones.

These days it is Stoke City, Everton and Sunderland where Martin O'Neill ends up. Yet even there, among the mid-table mediocrity, the numbers are dwindling, with a recent BBC survey showing how the percentage of game-time Irish players get in England's top flight has reduced hugely in the last five years.

Back in 2008, Ireland had the second highest number of players in the Premier League -- after England -- but since then the Spanish and French have overtaken us, a trend that seems set to continue after a summer of shopping when the 20 Premier League clubs bought 150 players between them. Just two of those were Irish.

"I don't think the fact we have players at Everton or Hull is a demonstration of a lack of ability, just more of a reflection of the way the English game has gone," said former Irish manager, Brian Kerr. "It is different now."

It got that way from 1998 on -- the year Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne and Damien Duff broke into the Wolves, Everton and Blackburn sides. That was the season English football really changed, because that year, for the first time in its history, a manager from outside the British Isles won the league.

On the back of Arsene Wenger's success, owners became obsessed with shopping abroad for clones of the Frenchman. Some -- like Chelsea when they discovered a young Jose Mourinho -- struck gold in their search. Others -- Christian Gross, Jacques Santini, Felipe Scolari -- have been an imperfect fit.

Yet they're here now. Nine Premier League clubs employ foreign managers, with Chris Hughton the solitary Repuplic of Ireland representative among the fraternity.

Never too numerous at the best of times, the dearth of Irish managers at the highest level in English football has had a clearly negative impact on the number of Irish players breaking through.

PERSISTED

David O'Leary, after all, championed Stephen McPhail's cause when he was a teenager before losing faith in him when injuries took their toll. He also persisted with Ian Harte and Gary Kelly when he had an open chequebook available to purchase outsiders -- £13m of which he gave Inter Milan for Keane.

And by the time Roy Keane held the reins at Sunderland, kids were being signed from Cork City -- Roy O'Donovan and David Meyler -- and playing Premier League football. Who else would have given them that chance?

More to the point, who now will offer the 2013 equivalents an opening? Whereas once, Ireland formed part of the English club culture, at Old Trafford, Highbury and Anfield in particular, in today's world it is a quaint concept.

And it went that way from the moment Roman Abramovich walked into Stamford Bridge and bought Chelsea. He wasn't the first foreign owner of an English football club, but he was by far the most significant. Money talks and players walk. As a result, England's big two became a big three and for a while a few Irishmen -- Duff, Roy Keane, John O'Shea -- clung on for the ride, but when O'Shea left Old Trafford in 2011, so too did an assured Irish presence in the Champions League.

Never was this more apparent than this autumn when 32 teams from 18 different countries battled it out for a place in the last 16 of the Champions League.

Stokes flew the Irish flag, but the other 31 teams ignored Ireland's talent, choosing 584 players from 48 other countries, 47 from Brazil, a predictable source, but intriguingly 17 from Belgium, nine from Uruguay, 10 from Slovakia and 17 from Switzerland.

While the presence of Anderlecht and Basel in the group stages boosted the Belgian and Swiss numbers, 13 other clubs still rated their talent highly enough to bring them overseas.

But Ireland? We were ignored. Our players prefer the more generous wages available in mid-ranging Premier League clubs. Kevin Doyle, for example, earns more at Wolves in League One than Celtic's top earner. In the long term this could have a negative effect. "What the Champions League experience has done is made the transition to international football easier," said Stokes. "In many ways it can be a higher standard."

Without a presence in that standard, the worry is that the national team -- hardly in great shape on the back of a disastrous World Cup campaign -- will get even worse.

The next generation does have talent. Ian Lawlor, a goalkeeper at Manchester City; Sean Murray, an attacking midfielder at Watford; and Michael Drennan, a forward at Aston Villa, are all good enough. But will they get a chance?

Only time will tell. The wait is worrying. The fact we had the same number of players in this year's Champions League as the footballing powerhouses of The Cayman Islands, Mali and Togo is indicative of where we are at.

Irish Independent

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