This was originally going to be an Irish Premier League team of the decade.
However, the last decade in the English top-flight hasn’t been a great one for Irish players, with fewer and fewer lining out for the top clubs in the Premier League.
During the previous decade, however, there were several top-class Irish players in the Premier League and one all-time great. As such, we decided to create an Irish XI from the last 20 years of the Premier League. Let us know what changes you would have made.
(Originally published on December 11, 2019).
For the first decade of the 21st century, Given was one of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers. The Donegal native was a key part of Newcastle United under the late Bobby Robson when they were competing in the Champions League and at the top end of the English top flight. An agile ‘keeper, who regularly pulled off fantastic saves, Given was a consistent, composed and confident operator, who very rarely made mistakes or let his team down.
Given had a mixed time with Manchester City and Aston Villa respectively. He lost his starting spot to Joe Hart at City after a season and a half and played only 53 times in four seasons for Villa. The former Ireland goalkeeper retired after a spell with Stoke City in 2017, bringing an end to a 20-year career in the Premier League that saw him make 451 Premier League appearances and keep 116 clean sheets. The best Irish goalkeeper ever and one of the Premier League’s most consistent shot-stoppers.
Coleman is one of the best signings in Everton’s history, costing just £60,000 from Sligo Rovers in 2009. He was then a raw, unproven full-back but honed his natural competitive instincts under David Moyes, adding defensive steel and game awareness to his repertoire.
Under Roberto Martinez, the Irish full-back blossomed, experiencing the best campaign of his career in the 2013/14 season. Everton finished fifth, conceding just 39 goals in 38 games, and Coleman was correctly voted into the PFA Team of the Year for his performances. The right-back created 45 goal scoring chances that season, the second-most of any Toffees player. This was Coleman at his best, defensively solid and effective surging from deep into attacking positions. With Leighton Baines on the opposite flank, Everton had two of the top full-backs in the league at the time.
A move to a Champions League club never materialised, and Coleman hasn’t hit the same heights since returning from his horror leg-break suffered while playing for Ireland against Wales in March 2017. The Killybegs-native has still though been one of the league’s best right-backs over the last 10 years, and arguably shades other Irish contenders for this spot – Steve Finnan and Gary Kelly. Coleman, with 257 appearances, 20 goals and 25 assists, has had an excellent career in the Premier League and isn’t done yet.
Dunne was one of the Premier League’s best central defenders during the mid to late 2000s – despite his eight red cards, a league record he shares with Duncan Ferguson and Patrick Vieira, and 10 own goals, a record for the league he holds on his own.
The Dubliner, who won Manchester City’s Player of the Year award four years in a row between 2005 and 2008, was underrated by many. Dunne was deceptively quick, excellent in the air and difficult to beat in a one v one situation. He held City’s defence together before they became oil-rich and impressed for Aston Villa after being signed by Martin O’Neill. Dunne was named in the PFA Team of the Year in 2010 after his first season with Villa.
A colossus at the back for Ireland, the defender finished up his career in 2015 after a spell with QPR. He made 432 appearances in the English top-flight.
John O’Shea has almost done it all in football. The Waterford-native won five Premier League titles with Manchester United, as well as the Champions League, the FA Cup, the Club World Cup and three League Cups. He played almost 400 times for United, 446 times in the Premier League and 118 times for Ireland.
O’Shea excelled at right-back, centre-half, in midfield and even as an emergency goalkeeper – he kept a clean sheet and prevented Robbie Keane from scoring against United at White Hart Lane. On top of all that, O’Shea also nutmegged Luis Figo in a Champions League tie. What a career. One of the most consistent and dependable Irish players to have featured in the Premier League.
Had this been an all-time Irish Premier League XI, then, of course, Denis Irwin would have been in the team at right-back or left-back. The former Man United defender was world-class, an incredibly consistent player with wonderful technique, who would have a place in an all-time Red Devils team. However, at the turn of the century, Irwin was almost 35, and although he was still excellent and played until retiring in 2004, the previous decade saw the best of the Irish defender.
Harte was one of the league’s best full-backs during the early 2000s and warrants inclusion in this team. The Drogheda-native was a star for David O’Leary’s vibrant Leeds United team that were regularly in the Premier League top four and reached the semi-finals of both the Uefa Cup and the Champions League. Harte, who was linked with transfers to Inter Milan and Barcelona, lacked pace but compensated with his wonderful technique. A dead-ball specialist, he scored 28 times for Leeds and, at one point, was the best free-kick taker in the division alongside David Beckham.
Walters starts on the right side of midfield in this team not because he was blessed with searing pace or he was the most gifted footballer or even a winger by trade. The former Stoke City striker forward simply had to be included for his commitment, work ethic and mental fortitude. (He also played his best football for Ireland in an advanced position on the right side of midfield).
Walters fought back from some early knocks in his career to forge out an accomplished career in the top-flight. He featured for Hull City, Crewe Alexandra, Wrexham, Chester City and Scunthorpe United before he got his chance in the Premier League, joining Stoke City from Ipswich Town in 2010. The forward went on to score 43 goals in 226 Premier League games for the Potters – the second most of any Irish player over the last 10-years.
A talismanic-figure for Ireland during the Euro 2016 campaign, Walters’ latter career was slowed down by a series of injuries, but at his best, he was a formidable competitor.
Before you complain about his inclusion, name another Irish central midfielder who was as consistent as Whelan across a decade in the Premier League. It’s not easy, is it? There have been more talented players, such as Stephen Ireland and Wes Hoolahan. However, after showing fantastic promise and playing brilliantly for two seasons at Man City, Ireland’s career largely fizzled out at Aston Villa and later Stoke City. Unfortunately, the Cork-native didn’t fulfil his potential. Hoolahan impressed for Norwich City, but unfortunately only had four years in the English top-flight.
Based on talent alone, both would be in this team ahead of Whelan. However, the Dubliner is included for his consistency across a decade in the top-flight with Stoke City. He represented the Potters almost 300 times in the Premier League, helping the side finish in the top 10 three seasons in succession, reach the FA Cup final and the Europa League. Stoke would regularly spend big to try to upgrade him – signing players such as Wilson Palacios and Gianni Imbula. However, time and time again Whelan would get the better of seemingly more talented players to retain his starting spot.
When Whelan left in 2017, Stoke were relegated the following season. Glenn Johnson, his former teammate, said the team missed the Dubliner’s leadership qualities. He’s not a media darling or a fan favourite, but Whelan’s understated quality and selfless approach to the game has been a vital asset to every team he has represented. He beat the odds to carve out a career in sport’s most competitive division and that warrants respect and a place in this team.
The best Irish player to have played in the Premier League, Keane was also arguably the best midfielder the division has seen and the most influential and dominant player to feature in the English top-flight over the last 20 years. He was the driving force on the pitch for Manchester United’s most successful period, the one player who was indispensable to Alex Ferguson. (Keane started all but one of his 79 Champions League games for United, the only player too important to be rested or rotated).
Unfortunately, too many focus on Keane’s tough-tackling, snarling pitbull caricature. While he was one of the most fearsome players the Premier League has seen, Keane was a fantastic footballer and his passing ability remains underrated. The former Ireland captain was efficient and extremely effective in possession and always sought to break the lines with forward passes. Underneath his ferocious competitive drive, aggression and intensity was a brilliant, intelligent footballer.
During his 12 and a half years with the club, the Corkman won seven Premier League titles and was captain for four of those triumphs. United wouldn’t have won half as much without him controlling the midfield. He is an all-time great, not just an Irish or Premier League legend.
Duff was one of the most exciting and dynamic attacking players in the Premier League in the early 2000s, world-class at his best. After excelling with Blackburn Rovers, the Dubliner signed for Chelsea in 2003 in a deal worth £17m – a massive transfer fee at the time. Duffer didn’t disappoint and took his game to a new level during his first two years at Stamford Bridge, becoming a key part of Jose Mourinho’s title-winning team. The Irishman and Arjen Robben were among the most feared wingers in Europe, providing the cutting edge to Mourinho’s side.
After struggling with injuries during the latter part of his career with Chelsea, Duff signed for Newcastle in 2006, a move that did not work out and ended in relegation from the Premier League. However, Duff experienced a career renaissance with Fulham under Roy Hodgson, helping them reach the Europa League final during his first season in 2010. In terms of natural talent, it is difficult to name many Irish players as gifted as Duff.
There is a feeling among some Irish supporters that Long has not fulfilled his potential. Yet, when you step back and consider it, he has had a brilliant career.
Long is the top-scoring Irish player in the Premier League over the last decade with 53 goals, and the only Irish players to have scored more in the division are Damien Duff, Niall Quinn and Robbie Keane. He has also scored the quickest goal in the history of the division, netting after 7.6 seconds of Southampton’s game against Watford in April 2019. He is currently in his 13th season in the English top-flight, with over 300 appearances for four different clubs.
Considering Long, who excelled at athletics and hurling growing up, came to organised soccer relatively late, he has arguably overachieved.
The greatest goal scorer ever to come from the island of Ireland, Keane is another player who is arguably underrated by the wider sporting public. In 349 Premier League games, for six different clubs, the Tallaght-native scored 125 goals – which puts him 15th in the all-time list of top scorers in the Premier League.
However, beyond his record in front of goal, he was an all-round fantastic footballer. Keane was a stunning perceptive player with an unerring ability to see how moves would play out, or where the ball would land, a split second ahead of opponents. His movement was world-class and Keane was capable of creating space against the most-packed of defences – all those goals at club and international level weren’t flukes. He was also an excellent finisher, composed and ice-cool in front of goal.
Keane’s partnership with Dimitar Berbatov at Spurs was one of the best and most exciting in the history of the Premier League. At his best, he was a brilliant footballer and brilliant to watch. Ireland will be blessed to ever have a striker like him again.
Here is the team in full:
(Originally published on December 11, 2019).