2017 was a mixed year for Irish football, as the Boys in Green came agonisingly close to ending their sixteen-year absence from the World Cup.
Martin O’Neill’s side looked down and out after collecting just one point from home games against Austria and Serbia left them in a precarious position, but an unlikely 1-0 victory against Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales guaranteed second place and a place in the play-offs.
The less said about those matches against Denmark the better, however, and the Ireland national side have a lot of rebuilding to do with a number of the old guard set to call it a day.
In the League of Ireland, meanwhile, one team set the pace right from the beginning, and after three years of playing bridesmaids, Cork City stormed their way to the league and cup double – finally breaking Dundalk’s dominance in the process.
But who were the players that stood out from the crowd this year? Who is the most worthy of recognition?
5. Darren Randolph. Randolph took the Irish number one shirt during that famous win against Germany two years ago, and has shown no sign of relinquishing it since. The Middlesbrough man has shown himself time and again to be reliable when called upon (bar the rare lapse in concentration) and should have the position nailed down for the foreseeable future.
4. David Meyler. Meyler’s versatility has sometimes gone against him as it can be hard for a player like that to nail down a position. However, when O’Neill finally gave Meyler a shot from the start in his favoured role, the Hull City man flourished. Compeition for places in that Irish midfield is fierce, but if Meyler maintains the form he showed in the latter part of the qualification campaign then he should be one of the first names on the teamsheet.
3. James McClean. The hero in Vienna. The hero in Cardiff. The de-facto spiritual leader of the Irish side on the pitch in Seamus Coleman’s absence. Nobody can doubt McClean’s passion and commitment as his performances for Ireland far exceed those for his club side West Brom. Can sometimes let his enthusiasm cloud his judgement, but he was still one of Ireland’s key performers in the World Cup qualification campaign.
2. Sean Maguire. The only player in this list included primarily on his club form, but no less deserving because of it. Maguire showed himself to be a level above the League of Ireland this season, scoring 20 goals by July as the Cork City effectively had the title wrapped up in the summer. A move to the Championship with Preston followed, where the 23-year-old took to the step up like a duck to water, scoring four goals, assisting three more and earning four man-of-the-match awards in the process. His first Ireland cap inevitably followed with a cameo appearance against Moldova, and although injury has disrupted this season, expect the striker to have a big 2018 for both club and country.
1. Shane Duffy. When Shane Duffy trudged off having been sent off against France at Euro 2016, few would have imagined that, 18 months later, he would be seen as Ireland’s best defender. Yet here we are. Over the course of the campaign, Duffy grew into a colossus at the back, and was a vital part of Ireland’s defensive strength (that 5-1 Denmark demolotion excluded), while goals against Georgia and Denmark showed that he can be a threat in either goal. His form for Brighton in the Premier League this season as, by and large, also been exemplary in their return to the top flight.
In the final Mixer Football Podcast of 2017, we select our favourite goals, matches and performances of the year, as well as our usual roundup of the latest League of Ireland news.