2017 was a mixed year for Irish football. Qualification failure and a lack of standout performers domestically has made many look forward to 2018 quite quickly.
However, a number of individuals have surfaced this season with many hoping to make more of an impression in 2018. We examine 16 players who could establish themselves in the Ireland squad next year. Some are only coming to prominence in their first teams while others will want to build on a couple of caps.
1. Declan Rice (West Ham United)
A rarity as so far that he is an Irish teenager seen regularly in the match-day squad of a Premier League outfit. Rice is a technically gifted defender capable of playing across the back three and as a central midfielder.
Comfortable on the ball and physical in the tackle, he could be Ireland’s answer to Eric Dier. He should be blooded in the New Year especially given the fact he is possible already better than some of Ireland’s defensive options.
2. Matt Doherty (Wolves)
It is hard to believe Doherty has remained cap-less following several seasons in terrific form. A modern day attacking full-back who can get forward, deliver accurate crosses and also adept at set pieces.
Doherty is a regular within the riches of Wolves and could be a Premier League player come September.
Some think he would only dual with Cyrus Christie as Seamus Coleman’s understudy but there is no reason he cannot challenge for Stephen Ward’s left-back slot. Has been one of Wolves best players this season and will no doubt wear green in 2018.
3. Liam Kelly (Reading)
A hugely talented midfielder who should have made it past being named in provisional squads by Martin O’Neill. A technically gifted youngster with a low centre of gravity, Kelly’s style of play is that of a quicker and more solidly build Wes Hoolahan.
He can play as a holding midfielder or more advanced and has the ability to hold onto the ball and dictate the play, something Ireland are crying out for.
4. Scott Hogan (Aston Villa)
Hogan has struggled domestically this term but could be one of those players that could thrive at international level.
One of the best natural finishers available to Ireland, Hogan has already received a couple of international call-ups following question marks over his international intentions.
The 25-year-old has a similar playing style and build to Shane Long and could represent a fresher option up front. A partnership with Maguire could represent a tricky strike force to deal with.
5. Conor Hourihane (Aston Villa)
Another Villa man and although already capped, will hope to nail on his Irish spot in 2018.
A set-piece specialist, Hourihane managed an incredible 14 assists last season. With the ability to score from long range, surge forward and get into the box to score all kinds of goals, the Cork man could be the new Matt Holland for Ireland should he get a run of games together for his country.
He will benefit from playing beside the experienced Glenn Whelan, a man he could replace in 2018 for Ireland.
6. Jayson Molumby (Brighton)
Another youngster to be a regular on the Premier League bench with Brighton, Ireland’s under-19 captain Molumby is a genuinely exciting talent.
A box-to-box midfielder who seems more comfortable in an advanced role, the Waterford man is fancied by Chris Hughton and if his time does not come towards the end of this season there is no doubt he will kick on at the start of the 2018/19 season.
Full of energy, technical ability and youth, something Ireland are lacking in midfield.
7. Trevor Clarke (Shamrock Rovers)
Starting to look like one of the most exciting talents ever to be produced in the League of Ireland and has already been tipped for full international honours. The 19-year-old was linked with Southampton in the summer and is beginning to look like a left-footed Seamus Coleman.
The former Middlesborough man is equally adept at left back or on the left wing, with his country certainly lacking at left-back. The reality is sadly, Clarke may need a move across the water for a call-up but international honours won’t be far off in 2018.
8. Josh Cullen (Bolton Wanderers- on loan from West Ham United)
Captain and star of Ireland’s under-21 side, Cullen looks the real deal and is not far off an Irish call-up. A similar playing style to that of West Ham legend Scott Parker, Cullen has the compose on the ball that Ireland’s current midfield lacks.
Has over 60 first team appearances in the Football League despite his youth but has struggled for game time since returning from injury.
If he rediscovers his early season form for Bolton and the under-21’s, he may not be far off a senior call-up and would enable Ireland to play with a bit more control in midfield.
9. Conor Shaughnessy (Leeds United)
Converted from a holding midfielder to a ball playing defender, Galway man Shaughnessy has been in and out of the Leeds team but is making a strong impression at Elland Road despite some early shaky moments.
Brother of St Johnstone’s Joe, the 21-year-old won his first under-21 cap this year and will most likely remain part of Noel King’s set up should his lack of first team appearances continue. However, his progress will no doubt be monitored given his potential.
10. Alan Browne (Preston North End)
A good physical midfielder that won his first Ireland cap last summer. Primarily a defensive midfielder, Cork man Browne has been recently pushed forward into an attacking midfield role by Alex Neill.
Not much better than what Ireland already have in midfield ability wise but at 22 would certainly freshen up things within the squad.
Vastly experienced despite his age with over 100 first team appearances at Irish strong North End and will hope to take it to the next step with international football.
11. Sean Maguire (Preston North End)
Possible the most likely on this list to make the breakthrough. Maguire is arguably the best available striker on the ball to Ireland with the ability to drive at defenders.
His instinctive finishing is something the likes of Shane Long and Jon Walters just don’t have and the good news is, he’s still only 23. He struggled at West Ham but seems to be improving with every game at Preston with four goals already this season before injury put a stop to his momentum.
Maguire will be pushing for a start with Ireland and could solve the goal shyness of his country whose strikers managed five goals between them in qualification for the World Cup.
12. Will Keane (Hull City)
The ex-Manchester United striker declared his international intentions were green in September.
Brother of Michael, the Hull forward is currently out injured but could add an alternative option to the striking department given his terrific hold-up play and aerial game.
Maguire and Hogan will no doubt be ahead in the pecking order but given the age profile of Ireland other strikers not to mention they’re lack of form internationally, Keane could be added to inject further youth into the striking department for the benefit of the long term.
13. Greg Cunningham (Preston North End)
Another on this list to be capped already but has been out of the picture a long time.
Out since the start of the season but due back in the coming weeks, Cunningham would arguably be Ireland’s first choice left-back were it not for several long-term injuries. Capable of playing full-back or on the left of a back three, Cunningham is a dynamic player with a fantastic cross capable of overlapping runs.
Stephen Ward’s inconstancy for Ireland could pave the way for Cunningham to reintroduce himself to the Irish side in 2018, especially given the fact he is still only 26.
14. Jack Byrne (Oldham Athletic- on loan from Wigan Athletic)
Hear us out, the Dubliner has worked terrifically hard to catch the eye while on loan at Oldham.
Less talented payers have risen from lower places and the ex-Manchester City youth has looked a cut above the rest while on loan at the Owls. He could return to Wigan next week who look destined for the Championship.
A gifted passer full of confidence, Byrne seems to have put the nightmare of last season behind him to reignite his career.
A player all Irish fans want to see do well and given his current form and undoubted talent could continue his Resurrection in 2018, hopefully pushing for full international honours.
15. Connor Ronan (Wolves)
Another at Wolves who could be a Premier League players in August, Ronan finally made his under-21 breakthrough and seems to be committed to Ireland.
Another to have injury issues this season and caught the eye against Manchester City in the League Cup.
He may be better served remaining with the under-21s for the remainder of the qualification campaign but will push for a senior call-up. A very similar build and playing style to Wes Hoolahan and could be the Dubliner’s long-term replacement.
16. Ryan Manning (QPR)
Manning has drifted off the radar of late but whenever afforded the chance has put in terrific performances, making it a mystery why the Galweigen is being ignored by Ian Holloway.
One of the standout performers at under-21 level, this time last year there were calls for a senior call-up after his league debut.
Still has time to get some momentum going this season and will hope to catch the eye in the exciting under 21 side.
Nick Menezes, Pundit Arena
Check out the latest episode of The Mixer, Pundit Arena’s Irish football podcast as we review 2017, picking out the best moments of the year.