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Brexit, Security and Pathways – the reasons behind the League of Ireland’s latest talent drain

League of Ireland

The state of play.

Since the conclusion of the 2021 League of Ireland season, there has been plenty of change within the League of Ireland, although that it is not entirely unsurprising.

Short-term contracts are often the name of the game for clubs, and players in both the Premier and First Division.

And while there is a practicality in doing so; it is undoubtedly contributing to this latest wave of League of Ireland talents making the move across the pond to the UK.

So far, more than 10 League of Ireland players have moved across the Irish Sea to England or Scotland. But, it is safe to say more are likely to follow.

Changing landscapes for League of Ireland players, and clubs.

Between Brexit, long-term contract security and a growing appreciation of the domestic game in Ireland; the landscape is beginning to change in the footballing relationship between Ireland and the UK.

Whether forced or not, the LOI is on a much sounder footing at home, with plenty of young talents bursting through the seams.

So much so that Serie A clubs are now reportedly taking a keen interest in young talents in the league, with James Abankwah and Kevin Zefi joining Udinese and Inter Milan respectively.

But while the younger talents are being poached; despite complications surrounding Brexit hindering the previously traditional pathway; an older age profile of player are now making their moves across the Irish Sea.

Speaking to Pundit Arena last week, now-Ayr United winger, and ex-Cork City star Daire O’Connor; who joined the Scottish Championship side in the summer; revealed why the Scottish route is becoming more appealing to the Irish players.

“I think the Scottish clubs are looking at how well the Irish lads have done,” O’Connor said.

“Equally, I think there are a lot more Irish players that are looking at Scotland as an alternative to slumming it out in League One and League Two in England.

“It’s a good stepping-stone to progress and move to the next level. There’s not much of a difference standard wise between Scotland and Ireland from what I’ve experienced so far.”

But it is not just Scotland, it is England too.

Brexit.

And while players may perceive pathways in the UK to be more accessible than before, there is a fundamental reason to this. Brexit.

Since January 1st 2021, due to Brexit, players from outside of the UK [within the EU] hoping to move to clubs in the UK have been treated the same as players from the rest of the world.

In essence, they now require visas to play professional football in the UK.

While easy to get the ‘big-name’ players, clubs in the lower reaches of English football and in Scotland have been forced to adapt their prior means of recruitment.

Importantly, from an Irish perspective, that has, in fact, opened the door for Irish players chasing the dream.

“I call Irish passport the ‘golden passport’,” Quorum Sports football agent Patrick Deane tells Pundit Arena.

“Ireland, under the Common Travel Area, don’t have to have GBE [Governing Body Endorsements]. Ireland is the only country in Europe that is not having to do the post-Brexit rules on signing players.

“The GBE was brought in by the FA. And it has to endorse any foreign players EU and non-EU that come in to play. They’ve decided to put the bar very high [to let players in].

“What that means for the Irish lads is that they can play anywhere in Europe,” he adds. “But they are also the only nationality that can rock up to the UK and play without being an absolute elite player.”

Issues.

For context, a player wishing to play in the UK from anywhere in Europe, outside of Ireland of course, must have 15 GBE points to be granted access to play professionally, whereas Irish players do not.

And while that makes it easier to allow for players to make the move to clubs in the UK from the League of Ireland, there are still grey areas over the issue of compensation.

Recently, Drogheda United missed out on a financial windfall with James Brown’s move to Blackburn Rovers; with issues arising over the turn of the calendar year.

Because of Brown’s age, and the fact he joined Blackburn Rovers’ U23s, Drogheda were entitled to no compensation for their star man.

Consequently, if he was to stay within the League of Ireland, and join another club, Drogs would have received compensation.

Unfortunately, that is the reality facing Irish clubs, who are still battling against the backdrop of a well-established perception on the Irish game in the UK.

And it is unlikely that this will be the last time this will happen, as Deane explains.

“What you got to understand is, there’s still a perception… The League of Ireland has got better and I’m a big advocate of it. But it’s only recently that Wyscout have done the clips from the League of Ireland.

“Before, if you spoke to a club or scout about a player, they would go onto Wyscout and have a look, but there would be nothing there.

“Now, there is footage of the player, so you’re not having to send them video clips over on YouTube. Wyscout have a data driven model, and they now do the Premier Division in Ireland. That is helping [now].”

Shifting dynamics.

But when players do make the move across, many who go at an older age tend to succeed more so than players already in the system in England and Scotland for the most part.

And unsurprisingly, it is the exposure to senior football which has allowed them to do so; as seen in the case of Jake O’Brien, currently on loan at Swindon Town; and Zak Elbouzedi, now with Swedish giants AIK.

Elbouzedi ireland call up

“The English clubs look at the Irish players as having an unbelievable work ethic. [They] are men, not playboys going over,” Deane adds.

“There are exceptions. But most of them come over with a very old head on young shoulders. That stands out.

“[And] if anything, they’re ahead of players already in England in terms of physicality, because they played men’s football for the last two or three years…

“Once you get into the system in England, it doesn’t matter where you come from. The big thing is getting into the building as players, and once you’re in, it’s up to you as a player.”

Chasing the dream.

And when that call comes from clubs in the UK, not only is it hard to turn down, it can also have the potential to also be a life-changing move.

Daniel O’Reilly, 26, joined Scottish Championship side Hamilton Academical from Drogheda earlier this month, and is taking to life in Scotland with ease, so far at least.

And while it is still in the second-tier, it was an opportunity that the ex-Fulham academy graduate was never going to turn away without good thought.

“It’s hard enough to get out of Ireland as it is, especially when you’re in your mid-20s,” O’Reilly tells Pundit Arena. “Over here, in the Championship, it’s easier for people to come and watch you.

“You are playing against really good players, and there is that pathway to the Scottish Premiership whether it is with your current club or another.

“Some people might just want a change of lifestyle as well. And for me, I was probably never going to get that opportunity to over again.

“I thought it was just the perfect time to go over with everything that is going on, things can go by so quick, and you can be 30 before you know it, and it will be too late to go then.”

Jack Grealish Ireland

His move, however, sees him link up with an ex-League of Ireland manager in Stuart Taylor; a manager who is still actively looking at the Irish market as a means of bringing in fresh talent.

“The gaffer would be talking to me all the time about different players. I’m sure that he’s not the only manager that’s doing that, and wants to dip into the league.

“They obviously see good players, and most players in the League of Ireland are only on one-year deals. It’s a cost-effective way of getting players in, they come cheap.

“I came for free, so there’s not that much risk involved. If it works out for the club, and a player does really well, it’s a win-win for them.

“I think people are starting to look at the league with the quality that is coming through more seriously.”

What next?

As mentioned, this latest talent drain from the League of Ireland is probably unexpected to those who follow it. But it is notable nonetheless.

And with just days to go in the current window, it is likely that more may end up leaving the domestic game in Ireland for clubs in the UK, and perhaps even further afield.

Johnny Kenny Ange Postecoglou

But the shifting football landscape as a result of Brexit; combined with the strength of financial stability, new pathways, and most importantly, a growing appreciation of the League of Ireland; this pattern is likely to continue.

One way out of this cycle is long-term contracts, which can prove to be hugely beneficial in the long-run.

Despite that, it is easier said than done as Irish football enters a new era of transfer dealings.

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