Monday 23 October 2017

McClean's rise shows merits of home education

New season gives new opportunities to local stars, says Seán Ryan

THE importance of the League of Ireland as an assembly line of talent for the international team was emphasised yet again last week when Giovanni Trapattoni added former Derry City star James McClean to the squad for the game against the Czech Republic next Wednesday at the Aviva Stadium.

This brings the number of former League of Ireland players in the squad to seven, and is another indication that the change to a summer season is bearing fruit.

In 2002 -- the year summer football was introduced -- the Republic of Ireland squad at the World Cup finals included only two players who had come from the domestic league.

The jump to a possible seven for this year's European finals is good news for the hard-pressed Airtricity League, whose first round of Premier Division games takes place next Friday.

The home product is important to the welfare of the international team, and it offers another incentive for fans to attend league games -- they can spot the talent on its way to the top level.

More importantly, it makes a statement that young players can't ignore: they no longer have to go to England at 16 to get the good coaching and competitive football that will bring their game on to the highest level.

Up to this year, on each occasion that the Republic of Ireland qualified for a major finals, the biggest grouping in the squad was that containing UK-born players. That is no longer the case, and making up the difference is the increase in players whose careers started in the domestic league.

Another notable feature of the upsurge in domestic league talent is that it is now centred on attacking players, whereas, in the past, it was predominantly defenders who made the breakthrough from the league to international football. Now, you have players like Seamus Coleman, Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, McClean, Stephen Ward and Keith Fahey.

In the past, such a drain of talent would be seen as depressing the standard of the league, but it seems to have served as an incentive for other young players to make a statement, as a total of eight players earned good moves to cross-channel clubs last year.

This, along with the movement of high-profile managers, makes for a much-changed scene for 2012. Shamrock Rovers will be favourites to make it three in a row of league titles, as they are under the guidance of a new manager, Stephen Kenny, who has been there, done that, and has a strong squad to keep the Hoops in contention on all fronts, domestic and European.

Once again, Sligo Rovers are expected to be the Hoops' keenest rivals. Former manager Paul Cook had put together a good squad, but his successor, still to be announced, will have to hit the ground running as he will have little time to take stock before the league kick-off.

Derry City, with Declan Devine in charge, will also have a say in the title's destination. They have

retained most of last season's fine squad, and will be a handful for anyone at the Brandywell.

Liam Buckley's return to St Patrick's Athletic augurs well for the Richmond Park faithful, as he proved with Sporting Fingal that he could provide successful and entertaining fare. Expect Pat's to be there or thereabouts, as they were under Pete Mahon.

Of the promoted clubs, Cork City and Shelbourne should win more than they lose, but it could be a hard season ahead for Monaghan United and Roddy Collins.

UCD boss Martin Russell has retained most of his key players, so the Students will provide plenty of entertaining football and their quota of good results.

In the relegation stakes, it could be a Co Louth battle, with Dundalk and Drogheda United expected to be involved, probably with their neighbours to the north-east, Monaghan United.

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