By David Hennessy
Last week saw the switch of James McClean, a very exciting talent when he emerged in the 2011/12 season, from Premiership outfit Sunderland to the Championship’s Wigan Athletic. The earlier release of Richard Dunne from Aston Villa to QPR saw another Republic of Ireland international lose his top flight status while James McCarthy, Alex Pearce and Stephen Kelly also dropped down with their clubs Wigan and Reading last year. Even more worrying is that there is not a single Irish player with any team who finished in the Premiership’s top five last year. These include Manchester United and Arsenal: Two clubs with firm Irish traditions. Also free of Irish representation are high finishers Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and seventh placed Liverpool whose team included many Irish players in their glory days.
Looking through the squads of all Premiership teams now, you can find only 24 regular first teamers who qualify to play for Republic of Ireland. Of these, Stephen Ireland and Darron Gibson continue respective exiles from international duty while Giovanni Trapattoni has ignored West Brom’s Stephen Reid since 2008 while of course Damien Duff has retired from international duty. This number excludes Shay Given who spent most of last season on the bench.
Even more worrying for Republic of Ireland is the freefall of Wolves who, with Republic of Ireland internationals Kevin Doyle, Stephen Hunt, Kevin Foley and Stephen Ward, have dropped down into the third tier with successive relegations in recent seasons. While he was once linked with a move to Arsenal, Doyle is rumoured to be set for a move to Parkhead but without even an Old Firm derby to look forward to with Celtic, he is sure to be starved of competitive football there. Like Robbie Keane playing in MLS, Doyle could lack that sharpness that comes from playing quality opposition when Republic of Ireland call on him for a goal against a defence which is hard to break down. Wolves have released Hunt who is now a free agent while Ward is transfer listed. Leon Best, prolific with Newcastle just the season before last, is another striker in the Championship now with Blackburn. He has had massive problems with injury although he is now battling back to fitness.
Newly promoted Hull City are the premiership side with most Irish players with four: Stephen Quinn, David Meyler, Robbie Brady and Paul McShane. Four teams have three. Aston Villa: Ciaran Clark, Enda Stevens, Stephen Ireland. Crystal Palace: Paddy McCarthy, Owen Garvan, Damien Delaney. Everton: Darron Gibson, Seamus Coleman, Shane Duffy. Stoke: Jonathan Walters, Glenn Whelan, Marc Wilson. Norwich City possess Anthony Pilkington and Wes Hoolahan while Reid and Shane Long ply their trade with West Brom. The remaining players are Joe Mason (Cardiff), John O’Shea (Sunderland) and Joey O’Brien (West Ham).
There has been much said about the influx of foreign imports from all over the world joining English clubs and making it hard for local and Irish players to break through at the highest level. Irish players are struggling with more and more playing in the lower divisions. Of the sixteen Premiership players that Trapattoni brought to Poland for Euro 2012, only Shane Long, Darron Gibson, Jonathan Walters, John O’Shea and Glenn Whelan continue to play for their clubs in the Premiership.
Speaking on RTE this week, former Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr pointed out that English players are also very much affected by the increased competition from European, American, Asian, African and Australian players with their numbers ever dwindling in the Premiership. Speaking in The Sun this week, Rio Ferdinand remembered how his West Ham boss Harry Redknapp was unafraid to give young players like him a chance early in their career while now the stakes are higher, Premier League managers are more reluctant to take a chance. For these reasons, it is more worthwhile for Trapattoni to be watching the Championship for Ireland’s emerging talent.