There are many pathways into the Irish senior football team but not all of them are rewarding to late bloomers like Peterborough’s Chris Forrester.
An attacking threat for St. Patrick’s Athletic last year and a holding midfielder for Graham Westley’s Peterborough this season, Forrester is the latest former League of Ireland player to be drafted into Martin O’Neill’s Irish squad as the Dublin native looks to shatter the narrative that the League of Ireland has stopped producing Irish internationals.
For a number of years now, Martin O’Neill’s Irish squads have been very unkind to the best that the League of Ireland has to offer with the message becoming increaisngly clear that you must move abroad to increase your chances of playing for Ireland.
While we are yet to see a current League of Ireland player make one of O’Neill’s Irish squads, Forrester’s inclusion is about as close as we’re going to get at this stage as if Richie Towell missed out after scoring 27 goals from midfield, then it’s more or less a sure sign that it’s close to impossible to play for the national team while playing your club football in Ireland.
Seamus Coleman, Wes Hoolahan, James McClean, Shane Long and Kevin Doyle are all members of the current Irish team who have come through the League of Ireland system, and in Forrester the League of Ireland now has yet another graduate that has made the leap from domestic star to prospective international, albeit after moving across the channel first.
At 23 years old, Forrester has been a revelation for Peterborough this season with his strong play in midfield drawing favourable comparisons to Manchester United stalwart Michael Carrick, with his manager Graham Westley claiming that he possesses all the characteristics to be a great player.
“You look at the likes of Carrick, an intelligent player, reads the game brilliantly well, owns, keeps and passes the ball in the right way – he’s got so many of the characteristics,” Westley told the BBC earlier this season.
While Forrester’s journey is not exactly an anomaly, the most tried and tested path into the Irish team is to graduate from an English football academy and move into a Premier League or Championship starting eleven. For those not fortunate enough to be granted with big breaks across the channel at an early age, the League of Ireland is at the very least becoming a serviceable alternative for advancing a player’s international ambitions.
While Forrester’s inclusion in O’Neill’s provisional squad is a massive triumph to the league as a whole, it may still be some time before we see Forrester make his full international debut.
Rarely will O’Neill ever give a debut to a player who has just been drafted into one of his now standard 40-man squads. Bournemouth’s Eunan O’Kane and Brentford’s Alan Judge are still waiting for their full international debuts after featuring in several of the past few Irish camps.
But nevertheless, Forrester’s inclusion is a strong indication that if you perform in the League of Ireland, and can replicate that level of play in English leagues, an international call-up may not be as distant as most players might think.
While Forrester’s form has merited inclusion in O’Neill’s squad, the reality is he will more than likely not make his south Dublin return at the Aviva Stadium at the end of this month, but rather be brought into an established environment in order to grow and mature as a player.
It’s part of O’Neill’s process as a manager, and a formula that he has been consistent with throughout his tenure as Ireland manager, so while Forrester may not get the start against Switzerland or Slovakia, his inclusion in the squad sends more of a message to players in the League of Ireland than O’Neill’s open door policy ever could.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena