Shane McDonnell attempts to understand why there are no international players in the League of Ireland, and why there is no attempt to produce players capable of playing on football’s biggest stage.
In the past two years, several former Irish internationals have returned to the League of Ireland to see out the remainder of their careers. Keith Fahey, Liam Miller and Colin Healy have returned to the league, boasting 50 international caps between them.
Each player has added quality and experience to the sides they have signed for and have been the topic of debates amongst League of Ireland fans. These debates have been to the tune of,
“Is the League of Ireland becoming a graveyard for past international players?”
But is there any possibility of players from the League of Ireland breaking into the senior international setup in Ireland?
The return of Fahey, Miller and Healy all raised a few eyebrows amongst the Irish football community, even drawing attention from non-followers of the League of Ireland. Fahey and Healy both had exceptional seasons last year, and Liam Miller has added quality to the Cork midfield this year.
But none of those signings have come with the general feeling of excitement or the profile that the signing of Damien Duff has brought. Duff has signed for Shamrock Rovers and will bring his wealth of experience with him; 100 caps for the Republic of Ireland, a Premier League winner’s medal and Champions League experience, having played against the likes of Barcelona in the past.
This signing has raised the profile of the league in Ireland somewhat, with Rovers being featured on the 6:01 news on RTÉ last week. However, is the signing of this Irish legend really that beneficial to the Hoops? Should Duff not return to full fitness and only make a handful of appearances for Rovers, there is the risk of the league being given a reputation of the league where international players go to finish their careers, much like the reputation that the American domestic league, the MLS, has procured over the last few years.
Although players with such big profiles wanting to play in their own domestic league at the end of their career is obviously a positive, and shows that not every player’s ambition is to play in the English leagues for their entire career, it can send out a message that the League of Ireland is dining off past glories. That it has no interest in developing the youth, just celebrating the established.
With young players such as Patrick Hoban, Rory Gaffney and Gearoid Morrissey leaving their respective clubs at the end of last season, does it show that all young players use the domestic league as a stepping stone to secure a contract with an English club? If so, the league relies on players such as Fahey and Duff to raise the league’s profile, as almost every high quality player that comes through the league’s ranks ends up leaving within the first couple of years.
There have been exceptions such as Chris Forrester who has set the league alight with the wonder goals he has scored and the performances he has had playing for St. Patrick’s Athletic.
Obviously the need for fresh talent is there in every domestic league in the world but no league has such a culture like the League of Ireland has that players move around on free transfers every year due to the part-time nature and clubs only offering 40-week contracts.
This rotation of players every year means that there is very little stability in many clubs and many sides rely on bringing in more experienced players due to younger players not sticking around. Obviously due to this problem, clubs don’t attempt to produce international standard players, they try to keep hold of a competitive squad so the club can survive.
But should this stability be guaranteed by the FAI, if adequate prize and sponsorship money was on the table, would Irish clubs be capable of producing international standard players?
Since there are no current international players in the League of Ireland, and the last time a player from the domestic league featured in a competitive international match was Pat Byrne in 1986, when a former international player returns to the league, there is a general feeling of interest around the player from the supporters.
But should there be more of a focus on producing our own international players and not relying on English academies on doing it for us? If you look at the current Irish international squad, there are mainstays in that squad who came from the League of Ireland such as James McClean, and we’ve seen players in the last few years represent Ireland at the highest level such as Kevin Doyle who came through the system at Cork City.
However, all of these players needed to secure a move to England before they were even considered for the national team. Brian Lenihan for example, moved to Hull City from Cork last season and without even playing a game for Hull, he was included in Martin O’Neill’s Irish squad for the European Qualifier against Scotland.
Is there a mentality that League of Ireland players will never be good enough for international football at the level they currently play at? If there is, all you have to do is look at European results for Irish clubs in the last couple of seasons.
St Pat’s drawing 1-1 away from home with Legia Warsaw last year, Cork City narrowly going out 3-2 on aggregate to RK Reykjavik this season and Dundalk also narrowly going out despite winning away from home against Hadjuk Split last term. Each of these opponents have international players in their squads, and League of Ireland clubs, with very little money and not expected to pull up any trees in Europe, have took the game to each of their opponents.
Who knows, with an increase in prize money, advertising and the FAI genuinely attempting to improve the domestic game, there could be a drastic increase in the quality that every supporter of Irish clubs knows is already there.
Could we dare to imagine a future with international players coming from predominantly Irish clubs? Unless there is a complete change in the structure of the domestic game, those dreams will never be more than than what they are now – dreams.
Unless the FAI attempt to tackle this problem head-on, is there any possibility of international standard players from the League of Ireland? I’d like to think there is. The top quality players in the league like Richie Towell, Chris Forrester, Mikey Drennan, Daryl Horgan – the list goes on and on – deserve a chance to show what they’re capable of on the biggest stage.
If no-one is willing to give them that chance, then domestic football in Ireland will never return to its glory days.
Shane McDonnell, Pundit Arena
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