Smaller in number, but younger, and more likely to have a Dublin accent than an English one – that’s the story, in one brief sentence, which sums up the changing face of the Irish Premier League footballer over the decades.
The flow of Irish talent out of the English top flight this summer to lower leagues would be alarming, if it wasn’t just part of a trend, which means that with the season starting this week, only six Republic of Ireland footballers (Séamus Coleman, Nathan Collins, Gavin Bazunu, Mark Travers, Matt Doherty and Shane Duffy) can expect to feature in the Premier League on a weekly basis.
Younger players on the fringe (Caoimhín Kelleher, Evan Ferguson, Joe Hodge, Connor Ronan and Conor Coventry) start the season with hope moreso than expectation of getting some minutes here and there.
That’s just about a five-a-side team, in contrast to the Irish players who have left the Premier League, just one sold (Jayson Molumby), some released (Shane Long, Conor Hourihane, Oisín McEntee) and others loaned out to teams in a lower league (Troy Parrott, Jeff Hendrick, Ciaran Clark, Aaron Connolly, Gavin Kilkenny, Will Smallbone, Tayo Adaramola).
The inward movement is small, Premier League clubs signing young League of Ireland talent like Alex Murphy (Newcastle United), Josh Keeley (Spurs) and Trent Kone-Doherty (Liverpool) but it will be some time before that trio are even close to the Premier League stage, if at all.
It’s a different world now, compared to what came before. On what was the opening day of this new thing called the Premiership, English football was getting used to new terminology.
Viewed through Irish eyes, the Premiership’s debut season in 1992/’93 was like a get-together for the old boys of the Jack Charlton era, which had three years of life left in it.
At Stamford Bridge, Andy Townsend had a midfield face-off against fellow veteran Mike Milligan. Selhurst Park saw Eddie McGoldrick and Kevin Moran clash when Crystal Palace met Blackburn Rovers.
Middlesbrough had three senior Irish players (World Cup veterans Chris Morris and Bernie Slaven and new boy Alan Kernaghan) in the side that played Phil Babb’s Coventry City, while the Aston Villa team featured Ray Houghton, Paul McGrath and Steve Staunton, and Denis Irwin started for Manchester United.
The next day, with Sunday kick-offs about to become the norm as one of the prices paid to Sky for the new venture, the midfield battle between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool saw the old (Ronnie Whelan, then 30) clash with the new (Roy Keane, a week after his 21st birthday).
The picture painted that opening weekend (when 15 Irish players played in the Premiership) was a sign of what was to come over that season, when Irish players were prominent (32 players eligible for the Republic featured in the opening season) but were also of the older variety, leaning heavily on a large chunk of the Italia ’90 squad: Staunton, McGrath, Houghton, Moran, Whelan, John Sheridan, Niall Quinn, David O’Leary, Townsend, Gerry Peyton, Tony Cascarino, Morris and Slaven.
The second group was a batch of players who missed out on the Italy World Cup but were all seasoned pros, well into their 20s that season (Terry Phelan, Denis Irwin, Alan Kelly, Jeff Kenna, Mike Milligan, Eddie McGoldrick, Alan Kernaghan and Curtis Fleming), then came a younger cohort who would, in time, get capped (Roy Keane, Phil Babb, Alan Moore and Graham Kavanagh), and the final group, young players whose did play top-flight football but whose international careers stopped at U-21 level (Lee Power, Andy Turner, David MacDonald, Paul McGee and Tony Sheridan).
Of the crew likely to play this season, three (Coleman, Doherty and Duffy) are already into their 30s.
It’s the other trio that stand out – Bazunu (20), Collins (21) and Travers (23) who, between them, carry the hopes of their country. All are home-grown talents, schooled in the DDSL and the League of Ireland (Bazunu), all with Dublin accents.
The Houghton, Cascarino, McGrath and Townsend group had tales of Italia ’90 – the current Premier League cohort can only dream of playing in a World Cup finals.
Premier League football has completely changed over the three decades: when the Premiership started, older pros like Peyton (36 at the start of that season) and John Sheridan (then 32) could earn, and deserve, Premier League contracts.
There was no such contract on offer this summer for the likes of Hourihane (who dropped from Aston Villa to the third tier, with Derby County), Long (back at Reading) or Robbie Brady (helped get Bournemouth promoted but not kept on) and while loans away from their Premier League clubs is a case of seeing how some (Parrott, Kilkenny, Smallbone and Adaramola) cope, it’s likely that Connolly (Brighton), Hendrick and Clark (both Newcastle) will not feature for their parent clubs again.
From 32 players in that debut Premiership season to just six likely starters this term, it’s been some comedown for the Irish footballer, but with Collins, Bazunu and Travers eager to make a lasting mark on the top flight, the outcome could be just as fascinating.