Villa look a little green
Irish exodus evident as duo left to fly flag in Hoops win
THE Irish tricolour, which once flew proudly over Villa Park and all who worked there, has become a bit tattered and faded.
Aston Villa are still a draw in terms of the Irish public, that fact evident from the full house of 6,000 punters who paid into Tallaght Stadium to see Paul Lambert's side beat Shamrock Rovers 2-0 with first-half goals from Andy Weimann – likely to face Ireland in Vienna in the World Cup qualifiers next month – and Christian Benteke, the biggest gate for a British club on pre-season duties in Ireland this summer so far.
And Paul McGrath is still capable of bringing the place to a standstill with fans – many of whom were not even born when the Dubliner was playing for Villa – desperate for a photo.
But the Irish presence in the team is no longer what it was. It's amazing to think that only 18 months ago, when the country was still excited by pre-Euro 2012 fever instead of drowning in post-Poland gloom, the Villa PR department dreamed up the wheeze of assembling their Irish players in the first team for a photo, with an entire Irish XI posing under a tricolour, Villa proud that they could field an entire side – from Shay Given in goal to Robbie Keane up front – of Republic of Ireland players.
But in the summer of 2013, Villa Park is not such a hotspot for our talent. Of that Irish XI trumpeted by Villa last year, four players have left the club (Richard Dunne, Derrick Williams, Daniel Devine and Robbie Keane, though Keane was, of course, just on loan).
Three more are still on the books at Villa, but it's been made clear by the club that they do not see Shay Given, Stephen Ireland and Enda Stevens as part of their plans for the coming season.
Clubs have been linked with that trio, but their possible destinations so far – such as Doncaster (Given), Middlesbrough (Ireland) and Yeovil (Stevens) – indicate that other Premier League clubs outside of Villa do not see that Irish trio as elite division material any more. However, immediate plans are hard to work out, as Lambert refused to answer any questions on the futures of Given, Ireland and Stevens after the game.
Of Villa's Ireland XI from 2012, only Ciaran Clark and Samir Carruthers played any part in yesterday's effortless win over Rovers, while two more (Graham Burke and Mikey Drennan, along with Jack Grealish who is a newer recruit to the Irish cause) are still at the club and can only hope to progress next season.
Villa are one of those clubs who are hard to assess ahead of the new Premier League season in England and, if yesterday's win over Rovers is anything to go by, will certainly not be even in the hunt for a European place.
Benteke remains a goal threat, Alexandar Tonev in the middle is a classy player to have and Brad Guzan is a top-drawer keeper, while Ciaran Clark certainly looks like a player with real club and international credentials.
Clark came on as a half-time sub in the Dublin win and while he did his job at the back, limiting a weakened Rovers side to precious few chances in the second half, he almost nicked a goal at the other end, forcing a save from Barry Murphy on the hour mark.
"He done fine, the most important thing is that the players got more minutes under their belt and no injuries, which is the main thing," said Lambert when asked about Clark's contribution, the defender back in the frame with Ireland for the upcoming friendly in Wales after missing the four-game programme at the end of last season.
"He seems to be over his injuries now, he was unlucky. He had a shoulder problem when he was away with the national team and then he got hurt towards the end of last season. Overall, he did very well for me."
Lambert was also pleased with the contribution of Carruthers, the London-born midfielder who is eligible to play for England, Italy, Morocco and Scotland but has declared for Ireland and should win his fifth U21 cap away to the Faroe Islands in a fortnight.
"He has done alright and has been involved with us since we have come back. He is a young lad learning a lot about the workings of the game. But he has done fine."
For Villa, just doing fine in the Premier League this season would be a bonus, and even on the evidence of a pre-season win over Rovers, keeping hold of Beneteke will be a key element of that as he was a constant threat to the goal of Barry Murphy.