Daniel McDonnell: FA Cup weekend highlights Ireland's homegrown success stories
Importance of League of Ireland emphasised by amount of exports who remain in the game
A Brighton debut for Richie Towell was the main Irish focus on cup weekend, a reflection of the curiosity that exists about the next phase of the former Dundalk star's career.
By all accounts, he performed well in a defeat at Hull which was about experimentation for his boss Chris Hughton. "He coped very well," said Hughton, who stressed that the winter recruit needed the minutes given that he'd been out of action since the FAI Cup final in November. The real feedback will come in the form of his squad selection for the league games at Rotherham and Blackburn this week.
When the League of Ireland production line is referenced, the poster boys like Seamus Coleman, Wes Hoolahan and James McClean are the go-to names. They are the players that Towell will be trying to emulate and the bar is high.
It's quite appropriate that he made his breakthrough in the cup, as these weekends tend to shine the light on others further down the ladder who may not have hit the same heights, yet deserve to be rated as success stories given how their time in the SSE Airtricity League gave them the platform to earn a full-time living from the game in a competitive environment. The depth of the contingent visible every weekend across the three divisions of the Football League is as much an advertisement for the benefits of home as the international stars.
Take Paul Keegan, for example, who was released by Leeds as a youngster and came back to play for Drogheda and then Bohemians before getting another crack over the water with Doncaster. He was 26 when he joined them in January 2011 and is still there five years on. "I've won League One and had two seasons in the Championship, which was a fantastic experience, so I'm really happy here," said Keegan last week. Significantly, he still has 18 months left on his contract, the kind of security which is unavailable to his contemporaries back home.
Paddy Madden got the opportunity to take on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge yesterday, and the late developing 25-year-old, who broke through at Bohs alongside Keegan, is one of the leading attackers in League One. Leeds are believed to be interested in the front man but, ironically enough, the fact that he's tied down to a lengthy deal could complicate things because that gives Scunthorpe the right to look for a substantial fee.
Last year, Madden pointed out that just three members of his Dublin & District Schoolboys League age group are in the game across the water. Enda Stevens, who featured for Portsmouth at Ipswich on Saturday, is another player who profited from a slow-burning progression on these shores. Jamie Devitt, now at Morecambe, is the only one who went over early and lasted the course.
In the last full round of League One fixtures, 31 Irish players made an appearance. The contingent included a host of familiar names that could equally be picked out as excellent examples. Jay O'Shea is doing extremely well at Chesterfield; Gary Deegan, Noel Hunt, Stephen McLaughlin and Dave Mooney, team-mates at Southend, were all in their twenties when they moved away for the first time; Chris Forrester is introducing himself to a wider audience at Peterborough and is being tipped for the top on a daily basis by his chairman.
There is a repetitive nature in the debates surrounding the future of Irish football, and this summer's European Championships are a good excuse to capitalise on the interest and examine the overall structure. It is remarkable, however, that so many of the discussions driven by leading pundits neglect to recognise the importance of a strong League of Ireland. For the FAI, who rely on players competing in England, to field a strong and lucrative international side, it should be at the top of the list of priorities - the dwindling number on the books of Premier League clubs mean that we can no longer depend on the academies to prepare the next generation.
As it happens, Towell's profile is already much higher than the aforementioned Irishmen scrapping away below the radar, and he deserves praise for insisting that he would only move from Dundalk if he could gain employment at a higher level than League One.
At Friday's SWAI banquet, Stephen Kenny praised the midfielder for living up to his words, and it would be terrific for the league if he went on to achieve his ambitions. Should he fall short of those goals, and end up in the same category as Keegan, Stevens, O'Shea and co, then that would still go down as a win in a profession where survival is everything.