As Martin O’ Neill’s Republic of Ireland squad prepares to take on Turkey this Friday evening at the new Antalya stadium, many of the public would feel that Sean Maguire will be in pole position to get his first start for the national team. This international fixture, in many ways, signifies a changing of the guard.
No one player epitomises this new breed of Irish footballer more than Maguire. The trajectory of his career has not been the swift upward curve that may have been predicted when he starred in a relegation/ promotion play off between Waterford and Dundalk in 2012. While Waterford ultimately failed to reach the promised land of league of Ireland Premier division football on that occasion but the 14 goals Maguire netted in 34 games were notable, but not only for his proficiency in front of goal, but for his hold up play, strength and ability to bring his midfielders into play was eye-catching considering the age and slight build of the young prospect at this stage. The donkey work that Maguire engaged himself in at such an embryonic stage of his career, did not preclude him from scoring at a more than competent rate.
Maguire’s travails to West Ham was not a surprise in League of Ireland circles, but it proved to be an ill-fated sojourn which included an 18 game loan spell at Sligo Rovers where he scored only once before faring better in the goal scoring stakes at Accrington Stanley without fulfilling the promise that had been shown as a 17-year-old prodigy in Ireland.
His return to Ireland as a player with Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk squad that were imperious domestic champions while playing swashbuckling football throughout the continent in the Europa League made Maguire’s scant impact all the more startling. He only played 6 times for Dundalk and made no impact in real terms to the team’s widespread success. Maguire had reached a seminal moment in both his career and life. This occurred when Cork City Manager, John Caulfield called him and asked him to “give it one last go” when he was perhaps on the verge of giving up this dream of professional football.
The Cork revolution that Caulfield was spearheading after years in the wilderness was well underway when Maguire came aboard. However, the transformation was truly astounding. After making his debut in February 2016, Maguire scored 38 goals in 51 games, starting as he meant to go on when starring in the 2-0 Presidents Cup victory against Dundalk, pointing to a hunger and ability to right the wrongs of a year in the footballing wilderness at a club which had been at the epicentre of Irish football success that hadn’t been seen since the halcyon days of Pat Fenlon’s Shelbourne.
Maguire, went from strength to strength at Cork City, playing in a team who were seen by many as the steely alternative to Dundalk’s silk, he became overnight the most valuable League of Ireland player in the country.
The relationship between Maguire and his former combative boss was symbiotic by nature. There were still moments towards the end of 2016 where Maguire had to content himself with a spot on the bench. This only seemed to spur him on, finishing the year with 29 goals before he played one of the most sublime half seasons of League of Ireland football last year before his move to Preston North End. It’s a credit to Maguire’s undoubted influence that the team seemed stunted and disjointed towards the end of the year. In October, Maguire made his International debut at the Aviva stadium, coming on as a substitute to the acclaim of the Irish supporters in a 2-0 win.
His return to English football at Preston has mixed both triumph and tragedy, seemingly playing out of his skin before injury intervened earlier this season. A spell out has led to delight as he’s gone on to score 7 goals in his last 7 games as Preston fight for a play-off place and he has become one of the most in-form players in the championship.
This has been seen by many as a culmination of years of hard work as well as enduring many difficult days, where the end goal must have seemed further away than ever. Not since the emergence of Robbie Keane at Wolves and Coventry in the late 1990’s have we seen the semblance of a goal scorer in the same mould emerge. Time will tell, whether Maguire can become the talismanic figure that Keane became for the National side. But one thing is for sure, it will not be for a lack of trying if he doesn’t.