Plenty to play for when Irish exiles begin Championship campaign
When Seán Maguire came on for his Preston debut last Tuesday night and scored against Premier League side Burnley, his former manager John Caulfield wasn't one bit surprised.
"If he gets game time he'll be a success," he had told me earlier in the day. "He's going to a club with 30 professionals and five strikers, but I have no doubt that, if given the first seven or eight games, he will do it. The problem is the perception that our League is not good enough. He needs the manager to back him, and the fact that the manager who signed him isn't there means he'll have to prove himself more but I've no doubt that, with better players, he'll be a better player too."
Caulfield can take a lot of credit for the upturn in Maguire's fortunes, but he deflects the credit back to the dedication the 23-year-old Kilkenny striker displayed. "For instance, he took a significant drop in wages to join us. When I met him I knew he had talent because I had seen him at under-age, but for 18 months he hadn't been scoring and in everyone's eyes he was a goner.
"I told him you know who you are, but you need to start scoring goals again. He just put his head down and worked. Maybe he liked the fact that I was very honest with him. He came to pre-season and started to score a few goals, then we played the President's Cup and he scored two goals against Dundalk, and the next week we played Bohs in the League and he scored two more. He was up and running. What I also liked about him was that he never changed, his success never went to his head. He is a genuinely nice fellow, who stays and signs the autographs and talks to the fans."
After a successful first season, where he scored 29 goals, including the winning goal in the FAI Cup final, Maguire was set a further challenge by Caulfield. "Think of giving 100 per cent on and off the pitch and you could improve by 20 per cent," was the message, and Maguire bought into it.
The mindset and culture change, which Caulfield believed could bring Maguire's game to another level, involved no alcohol, and extra training sessions every day. "This was from my own experience as a player," he explained. "You might think you are good or even great, but how can you get better? Do you stay back for extra training every day or one day a week, and of course it has to be every day if you want to get better - and for Seánie that became part of his routine.
"He wasn't just saying I'll do a finishing session today - he took it on board to do it every day. And it's that sort of dedication which has got him the move to Preston, and which will make him one for Martin O'Neill to watch."
Caulfield will also be keeping an eye on two other graduates of the Cork City system who are facing into important seasons in the Championship.
"Brian Lenihan is only 23, but he has been unlucky since signing for Hull when they were in the Premier and Steve Bruce was mad about him. He has great pace and stamina, but he had a problem with his knee and for most of his three-year contract he was injured. He only played about five League games in three years. His contract was up last May, but they were very happy with him in training and gave him another year. I met him while he was home last month and he told me, 'I know this is my season'. He knows he has to play, but they rate him very highly and he has been involved in all their pre-season games."
Alan Browne was at Cork when Caulfield arrived in November 2013, but his move to Preston was already on the cards. "He trained with us for five or six weeks, but he was gone during pre-season. He has pace and the energy to get round the park. He did incredibly well in his first full season in the first team, but last season he was in and out.
"This season is a big one for him. He's 22 and will probably make his mark. He has been capped, but it was like a token cap, so he'll want a bit more of the real thing at international level, and he's good enough."
With so many of the Republic of Ireland's established internationals operating in the Championship, which begins next weekend, Maguire, Lenihan and Browne know that a good run of form can catapult them into the reckoning for the run-in to the World Cup. There's a lot to play for.
Sunday Indo Sport