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Wednesday 13 December 2017

LOI chance must not be missed

Maguire debut and underage success is a great sea change

Seán Maguire is pictured in action against Moldova during last Friday’s World Cup Group D qualifier at the Aviva Stadium.
Seán Maguire is pictured in action against Moldova during last Friday’s World Cup Group D qualifier at the Aviva Stadium.

The reaction which greeted Seán Maguire's arrival off the bench for last week's World Cup win at home to Moldova brought back memories of a similar, stirring response from the Dublin crowd for a new boy.

Back in 2012 it was James McClean's introduction, as a late sub for Aiden McGeady, which sparked the crowd and made an otherwise forgettable friendly at home to the Czech Republic into something more memorable.

Maguire almost raised the roof on the Dublin 4 venue: at a time when the Irish side lacks the star names which rival nations fear, the kid from Kilkenny has the potential to be a poster boy for a new era.

The link between the national team and the national league has never been stronger, from the top of the tree (the second goal scored against Moldova was started, assisted and finished by three League of Ireland players) to the roots (seven current LOI players were involved as the Ireland U21 and U19 teams had a successful week of qualifiers).

Gap

We've come a long way from Giovanni Trapattoni's jibe in 2013 that "there is no league in Ireland".

Yet a gap remains. Especially as Maguire needed to leave Ireland before he could win that cap.

Brian Kerr wondered during his radio commentary on the Moldova game how many of the 49,000 attendance at Lansdowne Road (the ones who cheered Maguire's debut) would put on their coats again the following day and go out to attend the extensive LOI programme, to see the next Seán Maguire in the flesh.

Kerr got his answer: apart from strong gates at the St Pat's-Limerick and Sligo Rovers-Bohemians games (where, to their credit, many Sligo season ticket holders paid in to give the club a financial dig-out), the attendances were all below the 1,000-mark. Just 652 punters paid in to Finn Park to see the champions play.

And yet it's a good sign that some of those LOI clubs were missing players as they were on international duty with the underage teams like Bohemians man Warren O'Hora and Shamrock Rovers prospect Aaron Bolger, while Derry City's game was postponed due to U21 call-ups (Republic and Northern Ireland), potentially a new James McClean in there.

The LOI presence in the international squads now is a sea change from a previous era when Ireland were on the verge of World Cup qualification.

In the play-offs against Iran for the 2002 World Cup, only one member of the Irish panel had played at LOI level, Roy Keane.

It was a similar story at U21 level, just one player in Don Givens' U21 panel of October 2001 with an LOI link (Bohemians' Brian Shelley). Around the same time, Ireland's U19s were playing in Euro qualifiers with, again, just one LOI player.

Tensions still exist between the LOI community and those who toil away at schoolboy clubs and if more players leave to join foreign clubs, tensions over compensation payments will increase.

Youngster Aaron Drinan, who helped Waterford FC win promotion, will be the next LOI export with Ipswich boss Mick McCarthy confirming only yesterday that he was interested.

Bargains

"We have Aaron Drinan from Waterford in training with us now and we'll look to sign him in January," McCarthy said, having previously snapped up bargains in the LOI such as Stephen Ward and Daryl Murphy.

In a way it's a pity that the LOI season is fading out just as the international scene hots up with next month's World Cup play-off.

But the arrival on the senior stage of Maguire, along with the progress of impressive LOI youngsters like Warren O'Hora, Aaron Bolger and UCD's Neil Farrugia, is a opportunity that the FAI cannot pass up.

A previous attempt to link the success of the national team to the LOI, at Euro 2016, was rushed and poorly-executed, though the FAI did subsequently launch a poster campaign.

But a World Cup summer would give the FAI a real opportunity to promote the LOI, an opportunity that simply cannot be missed this time.

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