Sport Other Soccer

Thursday 17 January 2019

Make or break time in game of snakes and ladders

Daniel McDonnell looks at what's in store for Irish players as lower leagues reach climax

Shaun Williams. Photo: Christopher Lee/Getty Images
Shaun Williams. Photo: Christopher Lee/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It's crunch time in the English Football League and that means a combination of nerves and excitement for a substantial collection of Irish players whose futures rest on developments across the next eight days.

The three divisions below the top flight are a real slog, physically and mentally draining 46-game campaigns that invariably develop into a series of battle royales for promotion spots, play-off places and the fight to avoid the dreaded drop.

Given the limited Irish presence in the Premier League, this is actually the penultimate working weekend of the season for the bulk of our footballers based overseas.

The good news from Martin O'Neill's perspective is that a healthy number of his squad are attempting to extend their campaigns into the play-offs with a view to breaking into the big time.

That might limit their availability for the summer international window, but the bigger picture is that Ireland need more players at the highest level.

With Matt Doherty's Wolves already up, and Irishmen on the books of the other 10 sides that still retain a chance of joining them, good news stories are guaranteed.

Some scenarios would work out better than others for O'Neill, although the caveat here is that promotion doesn't always mean progress for the individual if massive summer investment pushes them down the pecking order.

Doherty has performed so well for Wolves this season that he should be capable of surviving any changes, but that remains a niggling worry for all the players.

It's the play-off race that will really energise O'Neill. Fulham and Cardiff are battling it out to join Wolves in winning automatic promotion.

Cyrus Christie is at Fulham, following a second move in the space of a year after not fitting in under Tony Pulis at Middlesbrough, but he's only on the fringes.

Anthony Pilkington is at Cardiff, and his Irish career appears to be in the past tense, while Brian Murphy is very much there as a back-up goalkeeper.

Aston Villa are booked for the play-offs and that is significant for Irish newcomers Conor Hourihane and Scott Hogan.

Glenn Whelan's Irish days are done, but it would be a personal triumph for the veteran to be part of a successful effort with a sleeping giant.

Villa's mindset for this afternoon's encounter with Derby will have major implications for the Irish contingent on the outside of the top six looking in.

Darren Randolph's Middlesbrough are fifth and need just one win from their remaining two matches to be sure of a play-off place.

Derby are a point behind in sixth, and their midweek win over Cardiff was a sickener for the clubs below them. Richard Keogh and Alex Pearce are big figures in their dressing-room.

Millwall have been in tremendous form and they travel to Middlesbrough today, sitting two points behind Derby, hoping Villa will do them a favour.

Injury has curtailed Aiden O'Brien's involvement, but ex-League of Ireland man Shaun Williams (right) is a major player for the Lions.

Play-off spotlight would highlight the development of the technically-assured Malahide man, a 31-year-old holding midfielder who has forged a good career for himself.

There are four teams within two points of Millwall that require snookers and will regret any dropped points if they narrowly miss out, as seems likely if Derby keep their cool.

Brentford are a relatively low-budget operation, with John Egan, the unlucky Alan Judge and January recruit from Limerick Chiedozie Ogbene part of their plans - the latter might actually throw his international lot in with Nigeria if he gets the choice.

Winning their remaining games - away to Barnsley and home to Hull - would give them a squeak.

Preston's home form has killed them and the only certainty about their trip to Sheffield United today is that a draw will doom both sides. Enda Stevens' United need a miracle at this stage as they are five points behind Derby.

Preston - with Greg Cunningham, Alan Browne, Sean Maguire and fringe player Daryl Horgan engaged in proceedings - are a point better off.

They are punching above their weight with the majority of their squad earning in the region of £6,000-£8,000 per week. In contrast, Aston Villa have John Terry on a reported £60,000 per week. Middlesbrough are paying proper money too. Preston need favours from both clubs today.

Callum O'Dowda's Bristol City are level with Sheffield United and also need Devon Loch impressions ahead of them.

The Championship relegation battle is of less Irish relevance, with Sunderland's demise confirming the diminished standing of Aiden McGeady, Marc Wilson and John O'Shea unlikely to be part of the Euro 2020 vision. Maybe McGeady has a chance if he nabs a move.

Damien McCrory is at Burton, who are vying with Bolton and Barnsley to avoid joining the Black Cats in the third tier.

Down in League One, recent call-ups Darragh Lenihan and Derrick Williams have already celebrated promotion with Blackburn.

Also coming up are Paul Cook's Wigan, with Noel Hunt as player-coach.

Richie Towell and Anthony Forde will be involved in the play-offs with Rotherham.

Wolves loanee Connor Ronan (Portsmouth) and the impressive Graham Carey (Plymouth) are other names to look out for if their sides creep in the back door.

At the other end of the table, it's tense for a pair of League of Ireland exports.

Ex-Cork defender Ryan Delaney is at Rochdale, who are level with Patrick McEleney's Oldham on points but ahead on goal difference. They are part of a five-team scrap to escape the two remaining play-off places.

Jack Byrne and the on-loan Eoin Doyle are at Oldham too and their current club have botched a promising position to hit a cold patch at just the wrong time.

Accrington (Seamus Conneelly & on-loan Jimmy Dunne) and Luton (Alan Sheehan, Glen Rea, James Collins & Alan McCormack) are coming up from League Two, and there will be play-off angles there too with Michael Doyle's Coventry striving to play their way into that picture.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport