Sport Soccer

Tuesday 24 October 2017

St Ledger can finally deliver on potential

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

SEAN ST LEDGER is older than you might think, although he was the youngest member of the Irish starting XI on that fateful night in Paris in 2009, and the only one without Premier League experience.

After his international breakthrough that year, St Ledger was a shoo-in for the 2009 Young International Player of the Year until people read the small print and realised he was actually overage.

Later this year, he turns 27. And, despite looking like a world beater in the latter stages of that World Cup campaign, he remains a top-flight virgin.

St Ledger has demonstrated an ability in the Irish jersey to compete at the highest level, but there has been a reluctance from managers in England to take that punt and show the same faith in his ability that Giovanni Trapattoni undoubtedly has.

The Irish manager was a catalyst for the summer move to Leicester that might well give St Ledger his ticket to the promised land.

Trapattoni is on good terms with Sven-Goran Eriksson, and gave a strong recommendation to the Swede when Preston's relegation to League One made a move inevitable; there was no way the player was going to drop down to that level, and the club indicated they would struggle to keep him on anyway. He was one of the better paid players at Deepdale.

"Eriksson asked what I thought about him, and you will know what I said about St Ledger," said Trapattoni last month.

"I said that he is very confident and, for me, he is a good player and a good man. Now, I say to St Ledger, you must show to Eriksson what I said about you."

The Birmingham native faces a battle to even get the chance to demonstrate his worth.

He kicks off the new campaign with a club that are fancied for promotion; and that is because boss Eriksson was given £10m to spend over the summer by the new Thai owners.

A competitive squad has been assembled. Senior performers like David Nugent, Paul Konchesky and John Paintsil have been amongst the newcomers.

St Ledger isn't the most talked-about central defensive addition. Reading's Matt Mills -- a target for a number of Premier League clubs -- was captured for a fee that is believed to have been in the region of £5m -- four times more than the reported sum for St Ledger, although the selling club were in no position to bargain.

Mills partnered Sol Bamba at the heart of the defence in last weekend's glamour friendly with Real Madrid -- brought over at a cost of £2m by the new hierarchy -- although St Ledger was given a half to impress due to an injury suffered by his fellow recruit.

Nevertheless, after also trying out at right-back during pre-season, it is clear that he will have to fight for his place.

Of course, joining a club with spending power is no ticket to success. St Ledger learned that two years ago, around the time of his Irish ascension, when a loan move from Preston to Middlesbrough was set to be activated into a permanent £4.5m move when the transfer window opened for permanent deals in January.

Alas, Gareth Southgate left, Gordon Strachan came in, and everything changed.

It was a complicated procedure, but Preston ended up with the player back. From there, his club form deteriorated.

Cashflow problems left the club in a difficult position, but St Ledger struggled to produce the level that made him sought after in the first place.

During Darren Ferguson's troubled reign, he lost his place, in a sharp contrast from the Ireland camp where he is a guaranteed starter.

His emergence was impressive enough to convince Trapattoni to break up the Richard Dunne-John O'Shea partnership that he initially favoured upon his appointment.

In March, the 72-year-old lavished praise upon St Ledger, going beyond the usual platitudes related to strength of character and personality to rule out the prospect of omitting him due to Preston's alarming slide

"For me, he's a super defender," said Trapattoni. "He's intuitive, he is fast and has the ability to play against any striker. He can mark any type of striker.

"Yes, he has the problem with his club, but I think he is in a bad team. That is a problem for him. St Ledger -- he is not Jesus Christ."

The question now is whether working under Eriksson will be beneficial. St Ledger's partnership with Dunne works because he can operate as the marker while the big Tallaght man calls the shots and enforces.

At Preston, where he ended the season as captain after Phil Brown replaced Ferguson, the leadership responsibility fell to St Ledger.

Both Mills and the popular Bamba are physically imposing figures. They measure up at 6ft 3in, while St Ledger comes in at 6ft.

In time, Eriksson may seek a balance that will favour the Irish international.

He is good in the air, but his reading of the game is a key strength.

Certainly, Trapattoni will be hoping that's what his friend has in mind. As he approaches the prime of his career, St Ledger can settle for nothing less than regular first-team football.

He has come a long way from the boy who was depicted as a petulant youth in the reality TV show 'Big Ron Manager'.

Indeed, his reporting for Irish duty through the pain barrier in June demonstrated his commitment to the cause.

The reality, however, is that he is better known for his international exploits than his club performances.

For his own sake, that must change as he embarks on nine months of paramount importance.

Irish Independent

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