By Oisin McQueirns & Robert Redmond.
With live football at a standstill and the Boys in Green’s quest for a spot in the European Championships put on hold, it’s time to look back rather than look forward.
And there’s no better place to start than with some of Ireland’s more underappreciated talents.
Here, we select a starting XI of some of the most underrated Irish players since the late 90s;
Goalkeeper: Darren Randolph
Ireland’s current number one, Randolph has kept the Boys in Green in games single-handedly at times and has been a constant between the sticks since breaking into the side in 2015.
The 32-year-old was so frequently one of Boro’s finest performers during his time in the Championship and was rewarded with his Premier League return in January.
Right-Back: Stephen Carr
With two PFA Team of the Year inclusions to his name following a brilliant spell at Tottenham, Carr was one of a host of stand-out right-backs Ireland had at their disposal in the late 1990s/early 2000s.
Injury cost him a spot in the 2002 World Cup squad but in his prime Carr was a marauding full-back who arguably should have won more caps for the Boys in Green, finishing with just 44.
Centre-Back: Kenny Cunningham
A solid, disciplined and intelligent footballer. Cunningham wasn’t the most talented player in this team, but few could match his consistency. The Dubliner rarely put a foot wrong at club level for Millwall, Wimbledon, Birmingham City and Sunderland. Cunningham made over 300 appearances in the Premier League and was a key part in helping his teams’ retain their top-flight status.
He also had a distinguished career with Ireland, making 72 appearances and captaining the side between 2002 and 2005. Kenny took the armband after Roy Keane’s exodus from the squad and retained it despite Roy’s return under Brian Kerr. Cunningham had a career to be proud of, and was a fundamental cog in every team he togged out for.
Centre-Back: Gary Breen
The player who has featured more times for Mick McCarthy than any other in a green jersey, Gary Breen was an outstanding defender in his day.
Commanding in the air and strong with the ball at his feet, Breen won 63 caps for the Boys in Green with his impressive form at Coventry City earning him a spot in the World Cup squad in 2002.
He also almost made the move to Italian giants Inter Milan off the back off his tremendous performances in Korea and Japan however he ended up signing for West Ham United.
Left-Back: Ian Harte
A brilliant asset for Ireland, not just for his defensive prowess and knowledge of the left-back role, but for his brilliant set-pieces which saw him score 12 times for his country.
Most of Harte’s club career was spent at Leeds, where again he provided a brilliant weapon from dead-ball situations, as well as solidity on the defensive end.
As far as left-backs go, they don’t come much better than this man.
Right-Midfield: Gary Kelly
As Mick McCarthy did at the 2002 World Cup we’ve opted to play Gary Kelly at right-midfield, with his inclusion vital given the brilliant career he had.
At Leeds, Kelly was a stalwart making the team of the year twice, with one of them coming at just 19 years of age, and won 51 caps for the Boys in Green, in what was an era of serious talent in his position.
Centre-Midfield: Steven Reid
An extremely talented and dynamic midfield player when he was fit, injuries arguably robbed Steven Reid of the chance to really shine with the Republic of Ireland.
Even when he was fit he was never quite a favourite of Irish managers, with others ahead of him in the pecking order, only racking up 23 caps, which is a real shame given the ability he clearly possessed.
Centre-Midfield: Lee Carsley
Primarily a defensive midfielder, Lee Carsley is best remembered for his anchoring of the middle of the park during his time at Everton.
Carsley was another who probably should have won more caps, although he took a year away from international football before eventually becoming a regular under Steve Staunton.
Left-Midfield: Stephen McPhail
Leeds United midfielder Olivier Dacourt once said of Stephen McPhail; “He did things I wished I could do. That left foot…it wasn’t real.”
McPhail was a brilliant talent and looked like he could be the next standout Irish midfielder at the turn of the millennium, but injuries plagued his career and limited him to just ten appearances for his country.
He regained fitness and had an excellent spell in the Championship with Cardiff City, before making the move back to Ireland to play for Shamrock Rovers.
Attacking-Midfield: Wes Hoolahan
Hoolahan wasn’t underrated by all, as Eamon Dunphy can attest, but in the main, it could be argued that the Dubliner wasn’t as widely appreciated as he should have been. Wes is a wonderful footballer, a skilful, intelligent playmaker who forged a career to be proud of after some early knockbacks.
Hoolahan appeared to be a throwback to a time when brains were valued over brawn on a football pitch. But, in retrospect, he was ahead of his time. Until Spain ripped up the rulebook regarding midfielders and how to play the game in 2008, midfield was the land of the giants and small creative players were shunted onto the wings. As such, Hoolahan had to wait until his late 20s to get a chance in the Premier League and with Ireland, but he made up for lost time.
He impressed for Norwich in the top-flight and became Ireland’s only creative force. Without him, the team looked lobotomised. Ireland have scored 16 goals at major tournaments and Hoolahan was directly responsible for 1/8th of them. He scored with a stunning half-volley against Sweden and set-up Robbie Brady’s dramatic goal against Italy with a perfectly curled-cross into the penalty area. Hoolahan is the ultimate Irish street footballer but belonged on the biggest stages.
Striker: Niall Quinn
Quinn scored massive goals for Ireland – netting against the Netherlands at Italia 90 and England at Wembley in a Euros qualifier a year later – and made key contributions – setting up Robbie Keane to score against Germany at the World Cup in 2002 and winning the penalty that led to Ireland’s equaliser against Spain. The Dubliner netted 21 goals in 92 appearances for Ireland, a commendable record.
However, he is arguably underrated as a footballer. Quinn was more accurate with his headers than many players are passing the ball with their feet. He was the perfect foil for two-man strike partnerships in the 90s and early 00s. Kevin Phillips for Sunderland and Keane for Ireland profited from Quinn’s intelligent play and deft passes into space. A selfless footballer who made the most of his talent and found the net on the biggest stages.