It's tough at the top
Young Irish struggling to break into the elite
EARLIER this month came a moment that a lot of people who care about the future of Irish football had waited for, the proper league debut of one of the country's most exciting young prospects.
Sadly for the player involved, and for the sake of a future Ireland team, Conor Clifford's league debut – aside from loan spells – came not in the blue shirt of Chelsea in a Premier League game, as had been hoped for, but in the navy jersey of Southend United in what is the fourth division of the English club scene.
For a player who has been on the fringes of the senior Ireland squad – named on the bench four times by Giovanni Trapattoni – the exit from Chelsea and the move to Southend, in the hope of getting first-team football, is no fall from grace, but hopefully a sideways move in a career which could still hit the heights.
Bear in mind that Clifford's manager at Southend is Phil Brown, a man who enjoyed moments in the sun (especially with his suntan) in the Premier League and was in a position to spend £20million over two summers in the transfer window while at Hull City. Yet he is now looking in the bargain bin, so it's not just players who have to drop their expectation levels.
But events over the summer underline just how difficult it is for young Irish players to make the grade at the top and make an impact in the Premier League with a batch of Irish players stepping out of the Premier League, from big names (James McClean moving to Wigan, Richard Dunne exiting Aston Villa, with compatriots Shay Given, Stephen Ireland and Enda Stevens on the way out of that club) to youngsters (current U21 players Derrick Williams and Sean McGinty dropping to League One), with Irish hopefuls Philip Roberts (now Falkirk) and Conor Henderson (on trial at Yeovil) leaving Arsenal.
There has been a flurry of excitement and publicity this week since it emerged that 15-year-old Dundalk lad Jimmy Dunne is heading to Manchester United.
Dunne is a fine prospect and everyone in this country wishes him well, but there was a similar blaze of publicity in 2010 when another Irish teen, Joe Coll, signed for United.
Three years on, Coll is back in Ireland and still waiting for his career (at Derry City) to kick off.
It's a plus for the current Ireland manager that he was able to name 10 Premier League players in his XI for this week's friendly against Wales. But at the level below, the dearth of Irish players involved in England's top flight is a concern, with just two English Premier League players in the Ireland U21 side which beat the Faroe Islands on Wednesday and they have either already moved on loan (Samir Carruthers) or are about to do so (Everton's Shane Duffy) to get games, their path to first-team glory looking very clogged up.
Since a batch of our players emerged in the top flight at top clubs around the same period in the 1990s (Carr, Duff, Harte, Given, Dunne, McPhail), only a handful of Irish-born players have come through the ranks of Premier League clubs to make any sort of real and lasting impact in the top flight: Stephen Kelly (Spurs), John O'Shea and Darron Gibson (Manchester United), Stephen Ireland (Manchester City), Joey O'Brien (Bolton), Ciaran Clark (Villa), Marc Wilson (Portsmouth).
The majority of Irish successes in the English Premier League have come from the League of Ireland route (Hoolahan, Coleman, McClean, Doyle, Long, Ward), Scotland (James McCarthy) or the lower leagues in England (Walters, Delap, Whelan, Hunt).
As our case study of West Ham striker Sean Maguire (see panel) shows, Irish boys know just how hard it is to make the leap into the first team of a Premier League side.
Before we make everyone too depressed, there is some hope. Keeper Ian Lawlor is very highly-rated at Manchester City, Noe Baba has real potential at Fulham, there's hope that Kenneth McEvoy can, eventually, make some progress at Spurs, and while Villa manager Paul Lambert is trying hard to offload big earners Given and Ireland, he did recently hand out new deals to Samir Carruthers and Graham Burke.
But as we know all too well in Ireland, early promise in the school of hard knocks that is England's Premier League does not always follow through. Ten years ago, Drogheda lad Sean Thornton forced his way into the Sunderland team and did enough in his 11 Premier League games to earn the club's Player of the Year award.
But a decade on, Thornton is far away from that level, having recently signed for Welsh league side Conwy Borough.
A road others may have to take in the future.