Unsung heroes fly flag in effort to catch O'Neill's eye
Lesser leagues littered with unsung Irish talent hungry to make step-up, writes Daniel McDonnell
THE discussion about the Irish star of the season across the water is likely to be a short one.
Seamus Coleman, described as being a world-class full-back by his manager Roberto Martinez, has been the outstanding performer from these shores.
There isn't exactly a huge list of obvious alternatives, but there's a fair chance that the same names will crop up. His Everton colleague James McCarthy has made a big impression, while Shane Long's stock is also high following his big-money move to Hull, a club where David Meyler has made his fair share of positive headlines.
Meanwhile, at Championship level, Andy Reid has stolen the show with some of the best football of his career at Nottingham Forest.
Beyond the higher-profile candidates, however, there are still a good number of Irishmen who have enjoyed steady campaigns even if they haven't hit the headlines due to their position on the pitch or the identity of their employer. They are the unsung heroes of the season.
Here are 10 who deserve recognition for their contribution as the summer approaches.
1. DAMIEN DELANEY
It's rare that a player gets his first proper crack at the Premier League in his 32nd year. It's even less common that he adapts like he has operated in that company for the entirety of his career.
Delaney was given a taster of the top flight when he arrived at Leicester from Cork City at the turn of the century. From there, he ploughed a relatively unglamorous path before landing a free transfer to Palace that has propelled him to the best spell of his footballing life.
He has warmed to the responsibility at centre-half with Tony Pulis' arrival steadying the ship and building a foundation that has put the Londoners in a fairly strong position entering into the final weeks of the season.
Delaney was an emergency left-back or a reserve centre-half during Giovanni Trapattoni's tenure; he has made a strong play for greater involvement under Martin O'Neill.
2. HARRY ARTER
The 24-year-old was on the books of Charlton as a teenager, but had to take a step back to make a couple forward by dropping to Woking before he jumped on an improving Bournemouth ship.
Eddie Howe's side are in the play-off discussion and Arter, a cultured playmaker, is a valued part of their set-up. Derry man Eunan O'Kane has featured in these pages before and starred in the FA Cup tie with Liverpool.
Arter is another who has attracted attention from bigger fish and has illustrated he is very comfortable at Championship level. The next step is not beyond him.
3. JONNY HAYES
It's been a very good season at Aberdeen, as they sit second in the SPL table and have already collected the League Cup. However, their substantial Irish contingent lost out on a place in the Scottish Cup final after being beaten 2-1 by St Johnstone yesterday.
Willo Flood is the most recognisable Irish name at the club and he continues to be a force at that level, while Adam Rooney has scored goals since moving to Scotland again and U-21 international Joe Shaughnessy is a name to remember.
Hayes, a 26-year-old Dubliner who started his career at Reading, has proved a revelation this term, with injury the only annoyance. The winger has an eye for goal and his graph is on an upward curve.
4. AARON DORAN
(Inverness Caledonian Thistle)
The product of the Blackburn academy was on the fringes of their first-team squad – making a Premier League appearance at Stamford Bridge as a teenager under Sam Allardyce's watch – before setting off to Scotland in search of gametime.
He has grown into a prominent player in the SPL and is exciting to watch, with excellent technique that he demonstrated with a stunning goal against Ross County the week before last.
Allardyce expected Doran to go on to better things and the 22-year-old can frustrate. Nevertheless, he remains an important creative force for Caley, who changed manager this term with Terry Butcher leaving for Hibs and John Hughes taking the reins.
5. LUKE CHAMBERS
The defender is Northampton-born but has an Irish passport and is holding out for a call-up which has yet to materialise despite the FAI urging him to get clearance sorted during Trapattoni's tenure.
Chambers is valued by Mick McCarthy, who has made him captain as the East Anglian club look to get involved in the play-off shake-up.
There are better-known Irish faces around him, with Daryl Murphy prominent in the goalscoring department and Stephen Hunt making a noteworthy contribution since arriving on a free.
David McGoldrick, an ex-Nottingham Forest player like Chambers, was also on O'Neill's radar until he suffered a knee injury that will rule him out until May. But the defender has remained a fixture in McCarthy's plans, adapting to right-back while perhaps feeling more at home in the centre of defence.
6. STEPHEN GLEESON
The loss of Shaun Williams to Millwall in the January transfer window removed an important player from the Milton Keynes squad, but Gleeson remains a part of the furniture – though they need a foot-perfect finish to the campaign to make the play-offs.
Baby-faced Gleeson is just 25, yet he's had plenty of mileage since leaving Wolves in 2009.
He was part of Steve Staunton's US tour in 2007, and while he didn't really build on that he is another that harbours ambitions of a second coming in the green jersey. In reality, the respected operator in League One has to follow in Williams' footsteps to really come into consideration.
7. LEE FRECKLINGTON
The 28-year-old's name is unlikely to instantly resonate with Ireland fans and that is understandable given he only made one 'B' appearance during the Staunton era.
However, insomniacs who catch Manish Bhasin and Steve Claridge run through the lower leagues in BBC's 'Football League Show' every Saturday night will probably be used to hearing the name.
David Mooney is Ireland's top scorer in League One, but Frecklington is next on the list and in double figures for the campaign as an attacking midfielder with a Rotherham side that are bound for the play-offs and vying for a jump to Championship level that would do wonders for the profile of the Lincoln native, who was with his hometown club when he caught Staunton's eye.
8. JOE MURPHY
The experienced goalkeeper plies his trade for a basketcase of a club where off-field developments have dominated the narrative of their campaign.
They were hit with a 10-point deduction before the season started because part of the club was in liquidation, and the once proud Sky Blues are now playing their home matches 34 miles away at the Sixfields home of Northampton on account of their poverty. Despite that backdrop, they'd be on the fringes of the play-offs if they hadn't given the others a headstart and City fans recognise the value of Murphy, who has performed heroics this term.
9. ALAN MCCORMACK
You might remember the dramatic conclusion to League One last season when Brentford loanee Marcello Trotta – a confident chap on loan from Fulham – smashed the penalty kick that would have assured their promotion against the crossbar and rivals Doncaster went straight down the other end to score within 20 seconds.
To their credit, the Bees are set to put it right this time around, with 30-year-old defender McCormack – who arrived from Swindon last summer – an established presence in their charge.
Ex-international Jon Douglas and Blackburn loanee Alan Judge also earned a recent visit from O'Neill.
10 NIALL CANAVAN
League Two provides a punishing education, and Scunthorpe's Niall Canavan is sure to have learned from a campaign that will also end with ascension up a division.
The 22-year-old Leeds-born centre-half is a fixture in the heart of their defence and is regarded as a vocal presence with a decent future in the game. He was part of Noel King's Irish U-21 squad before growing out of that age group – he also put club before country in 2012 when a door to regular involvement with Scunny opened. All things considered, it's worked out well for him.
Eddie Nolan and Paddy Madden are the other Irish faces in a squad that is successfully returning to League One at the first attempt.