Exclusive - Chris Hughton fears the pathway to the Premier League is blocked for Irish talent
Chris Hughton believes the pathway to Premier League stardom is still open for the cream of Irish talent - but he admits they may never again secure direct entry to the game’s elite league.
Former Ireland defender Hughton is counting down to his Premier League return, as he prepares to lead his Brighton side into battle in their opening top-flight game against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City this weekend.
Ireland centre-back Shane Duffy should be part of the line-up Hughton selects for Brighton’s historic first fixture as a Premier League club, yet he will be one of a select few players who will be treading the boards with the game’s elite in England this season.
In fact, unless you happen to watch Burnley in action over the next ten months, Irish players will not be falling before your gaze too often.
Bournemouth midfielder Harry Arter and Southampton forward Shane Long may add to the Irish contingent playing in the richest league in the world and there may also be fleeting cameo appearances from West Brom’s James McClean.
Yet Hughton believes the best of Ireland’s rising talent can forget about breaking into Premier League clubs unless the finances flooding into the game from lucrative TV contracts dry up.
“The first thing I would say is that every top club in England are still looking at Irish talent and we have scouts at League of Ireland games,” Hughton told Independent.ie.
“If there is a player who comes through in Ireland, every English club will be aware of them, but getting into a top Premier League club and playing regularly straight away is probably not realistic any more.
“The exceptional talent will get through, I firmly believe that. 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.
“Two things have changed in recent years and the first is that the clubs in Ireland have got a little wiser to what they can get out of a deal.
“Twenty years ago, English clubs were picking up Irish players for virtually nothing, but those days have gone now.
“Secondly, 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.
“So the goal posts have shifted and the best route to get into the Premier League now is to start at a Championship or even a League One club.
“In the past and certainly when I was playing for Ireland, we had players from Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham throughout our squad.
“Not only were that attached to those clubs, but they were vital members of their teams and starting games every week in the top division.
“That was in the days when we didn’t have foreign players arriving for big money and it has changed the landscape for everyone, with Ireland clearly affected by this.”
Hughton’s formative international appearances in the early 1980s saw him line-up alongside the likes of Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton, Mark Lawrenson and Kevin Moran.
By the time he made his final international appearance in 1991, he had played in the Euro 88 finals in a career that saw him appear alongside some of the all-time greats of the Irish game.
The debate over how the next generation of Ireland internationals will match those impressive achievements has been raging for several years, with Hughton testing the waters when he signed Richie Towell from Dundalk in January 2016.
Many viewed Towell’s move to Brighton as the acid test case for Irish talent moving to the English game, with the player viewed as the best talent in the League of Ireland seemingly well placed to make his mark in the English game.
However, Towell has managed to make just one league appearance in his 18-months at Brighton, with Hughton conceding he has struggled to breach the talent gap that exists between League of Ireland football and England’s second tier.
On a more positive note, there are examples of flourishing Irish talent at other Championship clubs.
Preston’s investment in Irish players is providing a platform for a host of our hopefuls to shine in English football, while Ireland first choice keeper Darren Randolph, Aston Villa's Conor Hourihane and Birmingham's Stephen Gleeson, Reading's Liam Kelly and Sunderland's Aiden McGeady are all aiming for big seasons in the Championship.
“The standard at Championship level is higher than ever, with so many players dropping out of the Premier League due to the influx of talent from foreign countries,” adds Hughton.
“Premier League academies have huge numbers of players from all over the UK and Ireland that are not getting enough first team football and their careers can stagnate.
“We need to get more of them out at Championship and League One clubs to prove they are good enough to play in the Premier League, but loaning player is not always ideal.
“This is an issue that has been talked about for several years now and it is an ongoing issue so long as the top clubs have such huge revenue from the TV deals.”
With Ireland likely to have just a handful Premier League starters when the new season gets underway, the lack of options for our international manager has never been more acute.
Sadly, this increasingly depressing decline is unlikely to be halted any time soon.