Decline of Irish players at top level clubs shows no sign of stopping
Barely 20 players available to national team featured in English top flight this season
John O’Shea is an Irish player who won’t be playing in the top flight next season after his relegation with Sunderland. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
As it grows richer and more rapacious the English Premier League seems to cast a darker shadow than ever over the club competitions of neighbouring countries, but it no longer benefits their national teams in anything like the same way. In Ireland’s case the season just ended suggests the problem is becoming more and more acute.
Barely 20 players who are, or have been, available to play for the Republic featured in the English top flight since last summer. None played for a top six club over the past nine months, only a handful prospered at any of the rest and a couple of the international team’s stalwarts had seasons to forget.
Numerically, it is not a dramatic decline on a decade ago although Steve Finnan, John O’Shea and Robbie Keane were at Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham respectively back then while Kevin Doyle’s form for Reading earned him a PFA Young Player of the Year nomination – beaten only to the award by Cristiano Ronaldo with Cesc Fabregas second. Still, it is not good and there seems to be no reason really to expect things to get any better.
The decline of our players’ fortunes at the top end of the English game is well documented, the reasons well understood. It is 30 years or so since the likes of Paul McGrath, Ronnie Whelan and Liam Brady were celebrated as being amongst the most outstanding players at the country’s biggest clubs and many of those recruited under Jack Charlton enjoyed a similar sort of status.
Now, just featuring on an even semi-regular basis in the Premier League marks a player out as special by our standards and Martin O’Neill finds himself having to account for his failure to recruit Scott Hogan, once almost of West Ham.
The Londoners, as it happens, handed out the only last day senior debut of note to a well regarded locally born teenager who won Irish under-17 player of the year a few months ago. That his manager and other club officials talked him up afterwards is encouraging. That he was the only one considered worthy of a run out is far less so.
The English, of course, have problems of their own in this department. The number of minutes played by players considered to be available to Gareth Southgate at three of the top five clubs – Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal – equated to not much more than a single first team regular.
At least they have the likes of Southampton, Everton and Tottenham to take encouragement from, although even at Spurs who, lest we forget, have Dele Alli, it is the equivalent of four.
It seems incredible really that last year’s Leave campaign didn’t make some concrete commitments in this regard that they would be unable to deliver upon.
O’Neill, in any case, would settle for Southgate’s problems. Alli scored 18 Premier League goals, one fewer than all of the Irish players combined. Harry Kane scored 29 compared to four apiece for Jon Walters and Seamus Coleman.
The latter’s season will be best remembered for the injury that ended it prematurely but others have had a miserable time too. John O’Shea, along with David Meyler and Darron Gibson suffered a relegation to end what has been an outstanding top flight club career.
Gibson, having finally left Everton to play more football, was not even an automatic starter for Sunderland by the season’s end and the future of James McCarthy, who is still at Goodison, remains shrouded in uncertainty. Ronald Koeman insisted last week that his preference is to keep the player despite their very public problems, although the only logic for turning down the €23 million which rivals are reportedly willing to pay for him is that, when it came time to but a replacement, it would not go very far in this bewilderingly inflated market.
Things were better at Burnley where Stephen Ward had a genuinely good campaign and Jeff Hendrick laid the groundwork, we must hope, for more consistently impressive ones to come. Sean Dyche expressed confidence that Robbie Brady will find his feet at the club next time and while he made positive noises too about Kevin Long, we must wait to see if the Corkman can establish himself as a Premier League footballer.
Ward, like others to have done well – Glenn Whelan and Walters to name two – is the wrong side of 30 and, in the case of the latter pair, significantly so. Like Damien Delaney at Crystal Palace, they are clearly coming towards the end of their time at this level. Even Shane Long is approaching the home straight and, while he featured in over 50 games for club and country this past year – 32 of them in the Premier League for Southampton – there were just 10 top flight starts and three goals. It is, once again, well short of the return his status here at home might suggest could be expected.
Harry Arter had a better time of it. It was not relentlessly good news for the 27-year-old midfielder who had a few problems with injury but he performed well for Bournemouth and marked himself out as a player who can win possession in key areas for his team – a knack that, though he got just one himself, can lead to goals for those around him.
Of those coming up with promoted clubs, the ones most likely to benefit from playing at the top level next year – Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy – are both defenders and it remains to be seen whether Rafa Benitez might feel that the recruitment of Daryl Murphy has been a case of mission accomplished.
The Waterfordman is already being linked to clubs in the Championship. If he does move, he will, once again, be seeing plenty of familiar Irish faces around that division next season.