Wembley the last refuge of Irish dreams
FA Cup is now the only realistic hope of glory at club level for any Boys in Green this season
THERE was a time not so long ago when Paul McGrath was still delighting the senses at Villa Park and in the team around him, Irishmen filled key positions.
Fast forward to this year and a big FA Cup clash with Arsenal. Once again, Aston Villa fans will look to Irishmen to help them on their way to Wembley, just as they did with McGrath, Steve Staunton, Andy Townsend and Ray Houghton in the 1994 and 1996 League Cup-winning seasons.
The Premier League has changed utterly since the mid-90s when Irish influence peaked under Ron Atkinson and Brian Little, but Villa haven't moved forward much in the intervening years.
They remain one of the perennial also-rans, a big club unable to lift itself out of the mid-table ruck despite an American sugar-daddy owner with buckets of money.
He hasn't spent enough of his fortune to make Villa competitive among the big boys, but much of what money he did splash out found its way into the bank accounts of four Irishmen.
Fate and Manchester City's transformation from an ugly duckling to a bling-encrusted super-club delivered Richard Dunne, Shay Given and Stephen Ireland to Villa Park, the Irish diaspora, and Villa's Academy lay claim to Ciaran Clark, while Robbie Keane has done the migrant thing in reverse -- an Irishman coming back from the USA to find some part-time work.
Of the four, Clark has the least baggage with Villa fans that warmed to Dunne when he made the move from City but experienced doubt during Gerard Houllier's hamfisted attempt to repair the damage done when Randy Lerner made the mistake of his life and allowed Martin O'Neill to slip through his fingers.
Even Given's capabilities have been questioned by the Villa faithful, before he provided reassurance with a string of world-class saves on his return from injury and, up until a few half-decent performances from Ireland in the last two weeks, they probably felt the same about him as the rest of us.
But they have no concerns about Keane. In fact, they are probably regretting the fact that O'Neill didn't manage to sign him when he was at the club.
You have to wonder whether his two goals against Wolves, which included one of the best he has ever scored in the Premier League, might have caused Keane to reflect on his decision to go to America.
Keane chose cash over tedium in the mid-reaches of the Premier League and, unfortunately, that's the default environment for many of Ireland's best players.
Last Sunday's top-of-the-table double-bill involving Manchester City, Manchester United, Spurs and Arsenal went ahead without any contribution from an Irishman, a regressive trend which finally reached a climax after John O'Shea took flight for Sunderland last summer and Darron Gibson finally cut the chord with Old Trafford a few weeks back when he moved across the north-west to Everton.
O'Shea's rise through the ranks at Manchester United coincided with the steady demise of the FA Cup and his then manager, Alex Ferguson, did more than most to chip away at the foundations.
It didn't matter much to O'Shea, who was banking great wages and filling his trophy cabinet with an impressive array of silverware -- five Premier League titles, one FA Cup, three League Cups, the UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup.
Now, however, the only competitions O'Shea has any hope of winning are the two cups and this season, Liverpool and Cardiff have already confirmed their Wembley appointment. Maybe that's why the FA Cup seems to be more interesting this season than it has for a while.
Irishmen will be at work trying to make the next round across England over the next few days and for every one of them, the glory available at Wembley is about as good as it will ever get.