From League of Ireland to Football League
It’s hard to guess what level League of Ireland players would be capable of playing at elsewhere, at least I have always found it so. When Kevin Doyle was signed by Reading from my own club Cork City I remember wondering why on earth they overlooked his more prolific strike partner John O’Flynn. Although O’Flynn has since found success at Barnet and Exeter, there are clearly factors for consideration above and beyond strike rates, or their status as local stars.
English league clubs, those higher up the echelons at least, tend to look for strong athletic young players from the Irish leagues, while the local equivalent of flair players and tap-in merchants get left behind. It’s a policy that has reaped rewards for Everton, Sunderland and Reading in recent years, with all three clubs signing up former underage GAA players (meaning they are pretty adept at running fast while being thumped by fists, boots and sticks). Seamus Coleman, John Egan and Shane Long all have this background in common.
When The Two Unfortunates asked me to do this article, to complement those already published on the Northern League, the Isthmian League and the Conference Premier, I had a quick scan of those players I deemed as being in the top 5 in Ireland last season. I was shocked to see that each had left for pastures new over the previous fortnight. Given the part-time status of clubs in Ireland, and the universal financial turmoil, 90% of players in the Airtricity league went out of contract in early 2012. Cork City’s promotion winning captain of last season was offered a new contract at a wage level 80% below his previous one (according to the man himself, admittedly). He declined to sign it, and looks to be focusing on his civilian life, while Cork are plugging the gaps in their squad with youth players and free transfers. This pattern is being repeated across the league.
All this chaos means there are bargains to be had for any club that can pay a living wage. The reputed E100,000 PNE paid for PFAI player of the year Graham Cummins is typical for a star, and Rep of Ireland under-21 international Karl Sheppard moved to Reading for nothing. Derry City’s James McClean cost Sunderland a relatively hefty £350,000, but their investment is already looking a very wise one. Of those players that are left, here are the ones I reckon could make an impact in the Football League (no Cork City players here I’m afraid; hands off!).
Aaron Greene of Shamrock Rovers has a big season ahead of him. He has been through the Airtricity League mill a bit, having spent time at three clubs in the last 3 years, but he’s made steady progress throughout. After leaving Sligo Rovers on a free earlier this year, he appears to be a replacement for Karl Sheppard up front at Shamrock, although he can play on the left as well. He is pacy and has a nice touch, and although not particularly prolific so far in his career, has a knack for scoring important goals. As a regular in Ireland under 21 squads last season, he has been in the shop window for a while but perhaps lacks the physicality that English clubs often look for. If he can nail down a starting place for Rovers, and keep improving his finishing, then he could be a decent signing this time next year for a team in League 1.
Another player hoovered up by Shamrock Rovers this month was Killian Brennan. He has long been thought of as one of the league’s best players, first at Derry City, and more recently for Bohemians. Usually playing on the left of midfield, he has been a big asset for every team he has played for, with great crossing ability. He’s also a threat from set-pieces. At 28 years of age, he is probably a too old to be viewed as a “prospect” for most clubs, but he did seem to be on the verge of signing for Coventry City last year. He is an experienced campaigner who might fit into some league 1 clubs.
Chris Fagan, who also moved on a free transfer this winter, is a young player who will be looking to make his mark this year. He had a bit of a breakthrough season with Bohemians last time out, scoring 11 in 23 games despite having some injury trouble. Now with St Patrick’s Athletic he will be looking to build on this, and if he can stay free of injury I think he will generate some interest from across the water. He spent 4 years as a trainee at Manchester United, before brief spells at Hamilton Academicals, Lincoln City, and Jerez Industrial CF, where his playing chances were limited despite scoring a few when he did appear. Worth a gamble, and has already scored goals in League 2.
Billy Dennehy is an established Airtricity League star, and was particularly impressive for Shamrock Rovers in the Europa League last year. A very skilful creative player, he nevertheless failed to break through during his 3 years with Sunderland in 2005-2008, and only saw game time in England during a loan spell with Accrington Stanley. Always willing to take his man on, and with a good strike rate from out on the left wing, I personally think he is capable of playing at Championship level. He is still only 25, so not over the hill by any means, and if his slender 5’ 8” frame is putting clubs off, they should check out his impressive Gaelic Football creds at minor level.