Sport Premier League

Tuesday 11 December 2018

Ireland's paltry Premier League goals return and appearances a real cause for concern

Robbie Brady and (inset) it's 10 years since Robbie kKeane signed for Liverpool
Robbie Brady and (inset) it's 10 years since Robbie kKeane signed for Liverpool
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Ten years have passed since a transfer involving an Irish player was one of the stories of the summer.

Granted, Robbie Keane's £18m switch from Spurs to Liverpool did not exactly turn out to be a roaring success.

The prolific international goalscorer never really fitted into Rafa Benitez's plans at Anfield, with tension between the manager and the club's ownership also hanging in the air, and he ended up back in London by the close of the next transfer window.

Still, at least there was an Irish player involved in a move of substance at the business end of the table.

The season didn't turn out as Keane had planned, but there would still be Irish joy when it came to the crunch.

John O'Shea made 30 league appearances for a Manchester United side that claimed the league title, and he would start in a Champions League final defeat to Barcelona in what was arguably his best season at the club.

Across the city, Stephen Ireland's performances for Manchester City earned him a PFA Young Player of the Year award nomination, an honour that is normally a step towards a long and successful career in the game. Not in his case.

The next decade was not kind to the international exile - who is now without a club - but it has also been a struggle for the standing of Irish players at the highest level.

Declan Rice. Photo: Sportsfile
Declan Rice. Photo: Sportsfile

With the generation of Keane, Damien Duff, Richard Dunne, Shay Given and O'Shea moving on, the next crop have found it hard to reach the same level.

Seamus Coleman is the highest-profile player entering this campaign, but the window for his really big move might just have passed. James McCarthy was the subject of a big deadline-day switch from Wigan to Everton but his star has fallen and injuries have left him battling to get his career back on track.

Lucrative transfers for Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and Shane Long have been big news in Ireland, but they are after-the-ad-break material across the water. That's just the reality of where Martin O'Neill's players sit in the pecking order as another top-flight campaign kicks off.

It's not as if it was a golden period a decade ago. We are now at the stage where there is an element of nostalgia about a time which was nothing special.

Just 14 Irish players were involved on the opening weekend in 2008/09, although that number would swell across the campaign.

Discussions were already starting about how Ireland's top-table representation was dwindling. O'Shea was a fringe operator compared to Roy Keane and Denis Irwin.

However, if quantity was lacking, there was still Irish quality but right now we are starved of both. Just 18 players figured in the Premier League last term and only a dozen of them reached double figures in appearances. That's a dramatic enough drop from 25 as recently as four seasons ago.

James McClean, Ireland and Damien Delaney have moved on from their old employers.

Matt Doherty's promotion with Wolves brings the Dubliner to elite company and Cardiff's decision to buy Greg Cunningham from Preston has given the ex-Manchester City youth another chance in this sphere; he joins a dressing-room where Anthony Pilkington's future is uncertain. Cyrus Christie faces a battle to get a run in the side with Fulham.

In other words, the numerical picture is set to be very similar. Is this the new normal?

Concern

That is the concern, much as there is optimism about the crop of young Irish players that are in their mid-to-late teens, with the U-17 side performing well at the European Championships in May.

The slow return of World Cup players made for a slightly truncated pre-season so it would be dangerous to read too much into it.

Young Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher impressed in his high-profile summer tour cameos but, similar to Conor Masterson, the natural stage in his evolution will be a loan spell down the leagues.

50kelleher.jpg
Goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher

Manchester United do have a versatile Waterford-born defender aiming to follow in the footsteps of O'Shea but Lee O'Connor might also have to travel to earn his spurs.

Troy Parrott has already trained with the first team at Spurs and he has been signed up by a top agency that have high hopes for his progression but the 16-year-old needs to be able to blossom, away from the spotlight.

It's asking a hell of a lot for players in that age group to burst into the discussion, although Michael Obafemi's cameo appearance for Southampton last term showed that a crisis can always open doors.

Naturally enough, it's hard to envisage that scenario coming to pass for those cubs on the books of the big boys.

The worry for Ireland is the dearth of players in their late teens and early twenties that already have an idea where their career is going.

Declan Rice is the exception to the rule, and the West Ham player does have the ability to become a marquee name over the next decade.

Manuel Pellegrini has taken a shine to the 19-year-old, potentially as a holding midfielder, and that would suit Ireland's needs.

His good friend and Irish U-21 colleague Josh Cullen was in the first-team set-up during the final weeks of David Moyes's reign and there have been pre-season indications that he might also figure under Pellegrini and that would be a positive development.

O'Neill is believed to be working on recruiting Ireland-eligible players but, beyond that, it's hard to see another name emerging as a surprise package.

The Championship contingent have work to do to impress top-flight suitors.

Cardiff's move for Cunningham was mooted last year and it's encouraging that Neil Warnock followed through with it after gaining promotion.

It's a step forward for the 27-year-old, and strengthens his case in the battle to dislodge Stephen Ward, but it would be preferable if players in other positions were attracting interest.

The personal landmarks for Doherty and Christie aren't of much relevance in an international context if Coleman is fit, although both are versatile enough to figure on the other side.

However, the most damning aspect of the Irish contribution to 2017/18 was the goalscoring return. A final top-flight tally of 11 was the lowest since 1963.

Shane Long, Jeff Hendrick and Ciaran Clark each managed to score two goals. Another slow bicycle race for Irish top scorer honours beckons. Long's form did improve under Mark Hughes and he is a confidence player, but history urges caution.

Lingering

Beyond that, there is a lingering feeling that Hendrick has more in the tank. If Burnley make the Europa League group stages, they will face a test but that's a positive problem - Kevin Long will certainly view it that way in search of game-time.

And then there's Brady who was in fine form for his club before incurring a season-ending injury last December and does have the ability to put the ball in the net.

If he can regain full fitness and McCarthy can get back on a pitch this side of Christmas, the picture will look slightly healthier.

The fact remains though that the outstanding Irish performer last term was Shane Duffy, although extend that honour to include management and his Brighton boss Chris Hughton topped the charts.

Firefighting is now the default mode for Ireland's Premier contingent.

Shorn of stars, the best we can hope for is a new unsung hero.

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