Irish players may look beyond England to fulfill ambitions
Even Jack Grealish, the brightest star on the horizon for Ireland, is not guaranteed a start for his club Aston Villa
It’s barely a year since 19-year-old Jack Grealish was out on loan at Notts County, and Ireland under-21 manager Noel King says he is delighted to see the teenager make the most of his opportunities at Aston Villa. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
For an awful lot of English clubs, the next few days and weeks will define their season but even before the finer points of the profit and loss columns are there to be totted up by Martin O’Neill and Co, the early indications are confirming that, from an Irish perspective, it’s been another tough year.
Sunday’s PFA awards made it seven years in nine without a Republic of Ireland player in the Premier League team of the season and as things stand there is not one of O’Neill’s players involved with the first-team squad at any of the top six clubs.
At the other end of the table, there are, as usual, a few more centrally involved and O’Neill’s take on this club campaign may essentially come down to whether Hull City are relegated, as Steve Bruce’s side could well take four of his established squad members, plus young Brian Lenihan, to the Championship.
The broader pattern is of more serious concern to the association, however. In addition to success of their first team, Chelsea, for instance, have become the dominant English club at underage level, and while there are players from places as diverse as Burkina Faso and Brunei, Colombia and Chile in their teams, there is nobody from Ireland.
Elsewhere, things are, on the face of it, slightly better; Manchester City, for instance, have Ian Lawlor and Jack Byrne on their books. But then the recent record at the very top-ranked clubs would suggest that the pair actually have little chance of breaking into the first team and will, having benefited from the best coaching and facilities that money can buy, end up dropping down divisions to find first-team football.
Lawlor and Byrne were both in the Ireland under-21 squad assembled by manager Noel King for last month’s European Championship qualifier against Andorra. Others in the squad, like Alan Browne at League One side Preston, Callum O’Dowda at League Two’s Oxford United and, most notably, Tommy Hoban at newly promoted to the Premier League Watford, have been notching up serious numbers of the first-team games.
“So their pathway probably eventually involves looking to establish themselves in the lower leagues but even that can prove difficult after you’ve been in a big club set up for a long time. If you look at lads like Lenihan, Ryan Manning and Dylan Connolly, who’ve gone over [to Hull, QPR and Ipswich respectively] after spending time with league clubs here, they’re that bit older and maybe they can cope with the pressure better. If they don’t make it, though, their options are the same.”
About the brightest thing on the Irish horizon is Jack Grealish’s progress at Aston Villa. It’s barely a year since the 19-year-old was himself out on loan at Notts County, and King says he is delighted to see the teenager make the most of his opportunities for the Premier League club.
There are no guarantees, though, with Grealish still having a lot to do to really establish himself at Villa and another long-time Ireland underage international Patrick Bamford, more recently of England, still waiting to see whether he will get to kick a ball in senior competition for Chelsea.
“Patrick’s been a success at Derby,” says King, “he’s been a success at Middlesbrough but he still doesn’t know whether that will be good enough for Chelsea; they might just decide to sell him, in which case all of the work they’ve put into him is sure to be profitable.
“But that’s the stage we’ve reached with clubs at that level; they’re long past just looking to Europe, they’re looking all over the world and that has knock-on effects right down the line. It makes life tough for us, but not just for us . . . for England, for everybody.
The new technical development plan, which the FAI is busy selling to clubs, leagues and local associations around the country will, it is hoped, help the production line, assuming it can be fully implemented over the coming years, but it is more difficult to exert influence on a radically altered market abroad.
In any other “business”, a small producer might seek new markets just as associations across Europe have done with their best players.
The culture of reliance on England is such that outside of the few Scots-based squad members and the utterly exceptional involvement of a locally based player, a trawl for first-time call-ups from anywhere further afield throws up Fran O’Brien 36 years ago, as well as Alan Campbell and Joey Lapira.
It would not, by any means, be an easy mindset to change but in the long term it would certainly be a worthwhile addition to the FAI’s “to do” list.