The new look of the Irish

 
 

Following Paul Corry’s switch from UCD to Sheffield Wednesday, Thomas Mitchell explores the recent trend of players spending their developmental years in the League of Ireland rather than joining the youth set up of an English team.

As Giovanni Trapattoni drafted the 23 names that would carry a nation’s hopes and dreams to Poland and Ukraine, a sense of true pride and patriotism swept across the Irish people. Finally the Irish were among Europe’s elite once more. So why is it that of the 23 names fortunate enough to represent Ireland this summer, only four started their careers in their domestic League of Ireland?

This figure is in stark contrast to Ireland’s group C rivals. Almost each member of the Spanish, Italian and Croatian team honed their skills in their native country before exploring the possibilities of playing abroad. Indeed, Ireland was the only nation at the summer tournament to have every single member of the squad play in a foreign league.

Ranked 31st in the UEFA coefficient table, the League of Ireland enjoyed a period between 1998 and 2010 where it was the fastest improving league in Europe, rising 15 places. In addition, the successes of Shelbourne and Bohemians in European club competition saw Irish domestic football grow in stature and reputation.

However, such is the gulf in class between Irish internationals playing in the English Premier League and those playing in Ireland that a League of Ireland XI exists in order to allocate some international football to those playing domestically. The pathway to stardom for ambitious Irish footballers would appear to be through our neighbours.

The English Premier League has topped the UEFA coefficient rankings for the last five years, and has not dropped below 5th since 2000. The finances of Manchester City and Chelsea dwarf the budgets of the likes of Sligo Rovers and UCD.

The lure of the star-studded Premier League to young, talented Irish players is plain to see. The British scouting systems are among the very best in the world. These scouts are particularly active in Ireland, where styles of play are similar to the English. The opportunity to play abroad is a very real possibility from a young age for Irish footballers.

But is it really beneficial to be thrust into the high pressure world of English football, especially when so few Irish players actually make it as a Premier League regular? Some of Ireland’s best young players recently have seen the benefits of a few more seasons in familiar surroundings before making the move to England.

Kevin Doyle became something of a fan favourite at Cork City, before a lucrative €117,000 move to Reading materialised. Stephen Ward spent a similar amount of time at Bohemians before a 2007 transfer to Wolverhampton Wanderers saw him become the most expensive League of Ireland export at that time.

Even Ireland’s most decorated player of the modern era, Roy Keane, initially made a name for himself at Cobh Ramblers, a lowly First Division side. Both Keane and Cobh benefited from Keane’s many rejections from numerous English sides and larger Irish clubs. Many attribute Keane’s success to the experience of handling the raw, physical demands of the Irish First Division.

Not only was Keane guaranteed game time at Cobh Ramblers, but he was also able to remain close to his loved ones and in familiar surroundings, something Keane admits to missing whilst at Nottingham Forest, often requesting time off to return home to Cork.

In spite of this, the League of Ireland is still massively underrepresented in the Irish national team. Players such as Richard Dunne, Damien Duff and national captain Robbie Keane all made the move to England early in their careers. It is likely that if Roy Keane had been successful in any of his trials with English teams, he too would not have played in his native league.

But that was then, and this is now. The recent growth of the League of Ireland coincides nicely with the introduction of Financial Fair Play rules in Europe, whereby teams must spend within their means. Although the growing domestic game in Ireland offers the supply to meet the demand of top English teams needing cheaper players, the recent European success of Shamrock Rovers could change the perception of Irish football both at home and abroad.

Over the summer, Paul Corry became the latest in a line of Irish footballers leaving the League of Ireland for England. Back in August, the centre midfielder swapped UCD for Championship outfit Sheffield Wednesday. Since then, everyone has been asking if Corry should have just made the move at youth level.

As a player who has publicly attracted and denied the attentions of English clubs such as Burnley and Nottingham Forest in favour of finishing his degree, Corry’s move to Sheffield Wednesday represents a great opportunity for a young and exciting Irish footballer. Although Sheffield Wednesday are no longer a top-tier club, they have a genuine ambition to return to their heyday of the 90s.

In remaining at UCD, Corry bypassed the hugely competitive youth system pathway, which is the stumbling block for so many aspiring footballers. In a sense, UCD is in a unique position in that the lure of an academic or sporting education is enough to resist the advances of football elsewhere. Conor Sammon is another example of a former student who has benefited from the delay in transition from Ireland to England and has recently completed a lucrative move to Derby County.

The future certainly looks bright for both the League of Ireland and Paul Corry, and should Corry’s career be successful, we could see the introduction of a wealth of Irish players looking to develop themselves in Europe’s fastest growing league; the League of Ireland.

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