Ranking the top 50 League of Ireland players of the 21st century delivers a reminder of what we could have done with a more stable structure
As the saying sort of goes, you should never have to choose between your problem children.
The idea of ranking the top 50 League of Ireland players of the 21st century came from above, and the challenge was both a blessing and a curse.
It provided the opportunity to lay out the array of talent that has graced the League of Ireland during an era of boom and bust, for both the country and the FAI itself, with domestic football on these shores often derided and underfunded if not absolved of all guilt for the flaws.
Football should always be about players, not administrators, and compiling the list showcased just how many good ones have graced our modest stadiums in the 21st century.
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Some loved and left us quickly. Others took time to evolve before moving on to bigger and better things. Then there was the contingent of those who were always happiest here and became elite sportsmen in their own right, even if international recognition was beyond their capabilities.
That said, seven of the top 10 won caps for their country.
We are often guilty of not appreciating what's there until it's gone. The Covid-19 stoppage is another threat to Irish football, but there does belatedly seem to be a desire at the top of the FAI to place the League of Ireland to the forefront of the organisation.
Compiling this collection delivers a reminder of what we could have done with a more stable structure.
This wasn’t a top-of-the-head endeavour. More than two dozen stalwarts of the era were canvassed, all on the basis they wouldn’t be quoted so opinions could be unfettered without fear of feeling obliged to mention old pals.
The request was to pick three players that stood out from their time, so as to ensure that it concentrated the mind towards standout picks. It led to some lengthy discussions.
Players will naturally – but not exclusively – lean towards the most talented they shared a pitch with so the process of working out the order was to factor in opinions based on pure ability and place it into a broader context of what those individuals achieved during their time in the league.
Across the week on these pages, the rationale for each inclusion was listed but, just to be clear, the top 50 is not ordered by how good they were.
Liam Coyle had gifts that numerous players placed higher could only ever dream of possessing, but they did more with their careers during the 2000 to 2020 period. The same comments apply to Paul Osam.
In saying that, a few players were in touch to query why Seamus Coleman and James McClean were up there given they had a short stint in the LOI, but there are anecdotal tales of opponents grasping they were up against proper players and that duo were away from the Dublin glare and not challenging for trophies. That was the balancing act.
A veteran player was adamant that to qualify, a player must have enjoyed success in European ties and that was taken into consideration; the irony is that the two lengthiest runs – the Europa League journeys of Shamrock Rovers (2011) and Dundalk (2016) – occurred in the decade where the league was less competitive at the top end.
Daryl Horgan got the nod over contemporaries such as Richie Towell and Seán Maguire because of the levels he reached in the Europa League groups; maybe the others would have performed similarly if they got the chance but they didn’t.
Yet at the same time, the top 10 is dominated by the leaders of the mid-2000s because there was more strength and depth in the league at that juncture.
For reference, one can point to the volume of players that went straight from the LOI to the Premier League within a very short space of time: Kevin Doyle, Keith Fahey, Daryl Murphy and Seamus Coleman spring to mind.
Stephen Ward is another that didn’t even make the list. Others such as Alan Bennett and Roy O’Donovan couldn’t quite reach that grade but went for proper money.
In recent memory, our better exports have gone in at Championship level – which is still an achievement – but found it hard to leap any further.
Another pointer to the quality of the mid-2000s is that skillsters such as Wes Hoolahan and Paddy McCourt weren’t even trusted for central responsibility at certain stages by their managers.
They were able to do enough to leave an impression on those who encountered them – both came up repeatedly – and it’s worth noting they were diamonds in the rough of a hotly-contested league stacked with savvy, seasoned professionals in a phase of Celtic Tiger wage inflation.
Top dogs such as Glen Crowe, Owen Heary and Jason Byrne were earning serious dough and were in no rush to get away; it was only a substantial Cardiff offer that lured Byrne overseas temporarily.
Chris Shields, Ronan Finn and Seán Gannon are modern-day versions in terms of longevity, although Patrick Hoban is the only 2020 striker notching goals with anywhere near the regularity of Crowe and Byrne.
Since the final entry was published, placing Crowe higher than Byrne has been contested. Oddly enough, Robbie Keane’s cousin didn’t get too many top-three mentions in the research-gathering phase.
Maybe his consistency was underrated. Maybe Fahey’s St Pat’s performances in 2008 were better than anything Hoolahan or McCourt did at home but his inconsistent years held him back.
In truth, while working out the pecking order of the best of the best was taxing, the hardest aspect was the exclusion from the 50. The loudest complaint was related to Gavin Peers, a Sligo Rovers staple in their glory years, and that was arguably an oversight.
For any accusations of recency bias, some current players probably ticked all boxes and were omitted. Graham Burke stands out having played for Ireland while here.
The other unlucky ones? Greg Bolger’s name keeps coming up, and Karl Sheppard and Conor McCormack are other modern-day examples of players to succeed at more than one stop.
While a large number of the Irish cap-winning LOI graduates took baby steps here (think David Meyler, Matt Doherty, Shane Long et al), Shaun Williams went below the radar while he was here. Don’t forget Niall McGinn, a star for Northern Ireland at Euro 2016, had a year at Derry City.
The list was striker-heavy so there was no room for Christy Fagan or Declan O’Brien despite their popularity at St Pat's and Drogheda. Dave Mooney and Eoin Doyle were exporting off the back of remarkable hot streaks.
Dave McMillan’s Champions League qualifying goals in 2016 put him second on the all-time Irish list and Dane Massey, Brian Gartland and Robbie Benson are synonymous with Dundalk’s story.
Similar comments apply to Barry Molloy and Gary Beckett of Derry’s mid-2000s team. Go back to the start of the century and James Keddy, Bobby Ryan, the Baker brothers - Dessie and Richie, and an ageing Mark Rutherford were top drawer for various employers.
Steve Williams (2000s) and Alan Mannus and Shane Supple (2010s) were goalkeeping contenders. And what about the class of Neale Fenn? The staying power of Raff Cretaro? Local heroes like Kevin McHugh?
The list goes on and the only certainty about doing another 50 is that more worthy contenders will be left out. In these debates, there are no right and wrong answers. Just opinions.
Yet the response to Joseph Ndo taking top billing has been largely positive. The Cameroonian had a little bit of everything. He won trophies, excelled in Europe, and frequently left really good footballers feeling inadequate.
Ndo, twice a World Cup squad member, chose to spend his prime years is his adopted home and was always worth the admission fee.
In a curious way, there's a niggling frustration that swathes of the Irish public didn't get to know too much about him.
Here's hoping the stars of the next decades are given a greater platform.
Daniel McDonnell's Top 50 League of Ireland players (2000-2020)
11 Richie Towell
12 Seáni Maguire
13 Kevin Doyle
14 Ronan Finn
15 Chris Shields
16 Colin Hawkins
17 Seán Gannon
18 Ollie Cahill
19 Jack Byrne
20 Seamus Coleman
21 Stuart Byrne
22 Gary Twigg
23 Brian Murphy,
24 Dan Murray
25 Joe Gamble
26 James McClean
27 Alan Bennett
28 Richie Ryan
29 Liam Coyle
30 Roy O’Donovan
31 Andy Boyle
32 Patrick Hoban
33 Mark Farren
34 Killian Brennan
35 Peter Hutton
36 John O’Flynn
37 Gary Rogers
38 George O’Callaghan
39 Chris Forrester
40 Daryl Murphy