Comment: New Premier League campaign devoid of interest from Boys in Green at business end of table
TWENTY-five years after the birth of the Premier League, it’s difficult to see Irishmen being front and centre in the anniversary campaign.
The search for the major green-tinted tale of the top-flight season ahead comes with the warning that there may not actually be one.
It was another story back in 1992/’93 when Sky Sports revolutionised English football. Denis Irwin’s Manchester United claimed the crown that year, just ahead of an Aston Villa group that included Paul McGrath, Steve Staunton and Ray Houghton.
Blackburn, captained by Kevin Moran, came fourth. Ronnie Whelan’s Liverpool were sixth just ahead of John Sheridan’s Sheffield Wednesday on goal difference.
There were other Irishmen littered around the business end of the top flight. And one of the few bright spots for bottom-placed Nottingham Forest was the contribution of a youngster named Roy Keane who would go on to make his mark.
Different times indeed. Of course, the globalisation of the Premier League has altered the profile of the dressing rooms forever.
The quantity of English players at the top table is lower so the domino effect was always going to impact on Irish prospects in the absence of a golden generation.
Still, it’s concerning that the dwindling contingent of Premier players available to Martin O’Neill are more likely to spend this term engaged in a relegation fight than troubling the business end.
Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy were the highest-placed Irishmen at the end of last season, but Coleman will do well to see action this side of Christmas, while McCarthy’s status at Goodison Park has been damaged by club-versus-country battles as well as persistent injury problems.
There’s no guarantee he will be there when the transfer window closes and if he does go, it will not be to one of the six clubs that finished ahead of the Toffees.
Southampton finished eighth last term, with Shane Long playing a peripheral role under Claude Puel and he will not have shed too many tears following his departure. He has spoken of making up for lost time under Mauricio Pellegrino, but it remains to be seen what role the new boss has in mind for the 30-year-old.
The other Irish players to finish in the top half in 2016/’17 were Harry Arter and James McClean. Both have worked extremely hard to reach that level and, while McClean did spend a long period on the bench, he should figure prominently for Tony Pulis’ West Brom side this year.
Arter is a fixture at Bournemouth and looks very comfortable at that level, but they face a battle to replicate their ninth-place finish.
Fifteen points split seventh-placed Everton and eighth-placed Southampton who finished ahead of Bournemouth on goal difference. They were just six ahead of 17th-placed Watford so it’s not inaccurate to suggest that both Arter and McClean are part of dressing rooms where the immediate priority will be to ensure they stay up.
In truth, that’s the reality for the rest of the players that O’Neill will be scouting.
A bad campaign for Burnley would decimate Ireland’s representation and there are weekends where it’s conceivable they will have more men from these shores on the pitch than the rest of the teams combined.
In that context, the sale of Andre Gray to Watford and suggestions that Sean Dyche contemplated other jobs in the summer is worrying.
Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick, Stephen Ward and Jon Walters should all be regulars and the new contract awarded to Kevin Long gives the impression that his stock has risen following a great end to his season.
That was an unexpected boost for O’Neill who put Long in his side for a World Cup qualifier.
As it happens, Ireland’s central defensive picture has improved from a league perspective. O’Neill’s first-choice pair appear to be Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark and they were both pivotal figures in the respective promotion campaigns of Brighton and Newcastle.
Duffy tasted this company sporadically at Everton, but he will kick off this campaign as a starting option and that will be a test of the Derryman’s credentials.
Clark has been reborn at Newcastle, having learned the hard way at Aston Villa. It hasn’t been the most stable off-season at St James’ Park, with murmurs about Rafa Benitez’s future, and Clark could do with stability. He’s 28 next month; and yet it still feels as though he’s got more evolving to do. Rob Elliot is vying for the gloves behind him and is due a good break.
In truth, Clark’s situation leads us into the biggest concern about the Irish delegation. It’s the age profile. Damien Delaney is still on the premises at Crystal Palace but well into his thirties and retired from the international scene. Stephen Ireland is on the books at Stoke and also past his best, although that has long ceased to be relevant to the football community in his homeland.
Burnley’s Long is a fresh face on the scene and 27 later this month. 1992 babies Duffy, Brady and Hendrick are the youngest members of the crew, but they are not kids anymore. Irish pros are coming to the boil later these days, be it through the League of Ireland or dropping down the leagues from academies and climbing up again.
There are belated signs that the generation born in the early 1990s are getting there.
“The exceptional talent will get through, I firmly believe that,” Brighton boss Chris Hughton told independent.ie this week. “If a Roy Keane or a Robbie Keane explodes through the ranks, they will be spotted, but the standards required now are higher than ever.
“Clubs don’t need to take a chance on a young Irish or English kid as they can just go out and sign the best players in the world and not worry about how much they cost. The best route to get into the Premier League now is to start at a Championship or even a League One club.”
Hughton knows the value of patience. If he can keep Brighton afloat, then he would be the Irish story of the season. In an ideal world, he would face stern competition.