Sligo Rovers’ recent signings of ex-Liverpool trainee Craig Roddan and West Ham loanee Jaanai Gordon are just two names in a long list of players who are now plying their trade in the League of Ireland after failed stints abroad.
Roddan, 22, was a former youth teammate of Manchester City star Raheem Sterling at Liverpool while Gordon has been shipped around a number of lower league English clubs while under contract with the West Ham development squad. Both players are English-born, but their career paths have been shared by many Irish players with statistics showing that over one in every four League of Ireland players have, at some stage or another, been affiliated with an English or Scottish club.
For every Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and John O’Shea, there is a legion of Irish players who have tried to make the transition to English or Scottish football and failed. They pursue the same paths as the aforementioned trio and are chasing the same dream, but when it doesn’t quite work out and their future no longer exists at the vaunted Premier League clubs, they return to Ireland and settle in the domestic league, where many play out the rest of their careers after highly promising beginnings.
Currently, more than one out of every four players in the League of Ireland has had stints with English or Scottish clubs, and that’s excluding the likes of Longford Town’s Peter McGlynn who has gone over to America and played for amateur clubs or colleges.
Statistics sourced from Extratime.ie’s League of Ireland database show that 73 out of 258 Premier Division players sampled have previously either played for an English or Scottish club, or had been part of their youth system in some capacity. The numbers are startling, with many players embarking on the road to Premier League glory and glamour before ultimately returning to Ireland’s domestic league.
Just like America’s MLS has developed a reputation as a retirement home for established players entering the twilight stages of their career, the League of Ireland serves a similar purpose (like other lower leagues) as a home for players whose careers never quite took off.
Bray Wanderers captain David Cassidy and Longford Town defender Mark Rossiter are two prime examples of players that went over to England chasing top level professional careers before flaming out and returning to the League of Ireland.
Rossiter began his professional career at Sunderland in 2002 and made his first team debut for the Black Cats against Arsenal in a 3-2 League Cup win away at Highbury in November of that year. However, a serious knee injury derailed a promising career and he was released by the Wearside club in 2004. He returned to the League of Ireland in 2006 and has remained there ever since.
Cassidy, meanwhile, experienced a similar path with Derby County where he signed for the Midlands club in 2002, spent three seasons in Derbyshire before returning home to sign for Pat Scully at Kilkenny City in July 2005. He went with Scully six months later to Shamrock Rovers and he’s been in the League of Ireland ever since, playing for five clubs in ten years.
But it’s not just a couple of players that went over and it didn’t quite work out – it’s over a quarter of the league, and nearly a third had it not been for a predominantly homegrown Wexford Youths promotion to this year’s Premier Division.
Morten Nielsen (Chelsea academy), Christy Fagan (Manchester United trainee), Dylan McGlade (Middlesborough youth squad), Brandon Miele (Newcastle United) and Ryan McConnell (Manchester United U-21 captain) are just some of the names that will be playing in this season’s League of Ireland Premier Division as most of these players will try to emulate the likes of former Dundalk midfielder Richie Towell and secure a move to England after a failed youth career.
Towell has set a precedent for other young players in the League of Ireland after signing for Championship contenders Brighton in November. A former member of Celtic’s youth system, the 24-year-old is the living embodiment that you can still secure a Premier League or Championship move while playing for a League of Ireland club; the catch is you have to be exceptional, as Towell was last season with a league high 26 goals from midfield for champions Dundalk.
There have been others who have graduated to Premier League success from the League of Ireland, with Seamus Coleman, Shane Long, Wes Hoolahan and James McClean a testament to the league as a successful proving ground. But, unfortunately, the success stories are massively outweighed by those who fail to make it, with about ten Christy Fagans or Mark Rossiters for every Seamus Coleman or Wes Hoolahan.
Research by the CIES Football Observatory shows that just 11.7 per cent of Premier League players graduated from their club’s academy in 2015, down from the previous year’s 13.8 per cent.
It’s a problem not only within Irish football, but clearly in English football too, and it’s an issue that needs to be addressed. With the new U-17 and U-19 national leagues set for kick-off this season, hopefully it will entice players to develop at home rather than take their chances in academies abroad.
“At this moment in time it’s more difficult for our players to break into first teams,” Ireland U-17 coach Tom Mohan told Pundit Arena.
“Especially lads at that 18, 19, 20 age group – fellas that are signing their second contract – it’s so much more difficult now for guys to break into first teams.
“If you look at the influx now of foreign players coming into English football, how many English players are breaking into first teams? Very, very few.
“Would Harry Kane have been among the top goalscorers in the Premier League if it wasn’t for [Mauricio] Pochettino coming in?
“He got a break. A lot of our young players over there, it’s difficult for them to get that break,” he added.
It’s a problem that both Irish and English football are facing as for every Jack Wilshere or Jesse Lingaard, there are so many more examples of those who have fell by the wayside. The new U-17 and U-19 leagues may entice those who are tempted to go abroad to the big leagues to stay at home first and develop their game.
But for the moment, it seems as if most Irish players are continuing to be lured by the big English clubs. As long as Irish players are being developed by English clubs, we will continue to produce the odd Robbie Brady or Jeff Hendrick, but for the most part when it doesn’t quite work out and their clubs deem them surplus to requirements, the League of Ireland will be waiting with open arms.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena