Irish players have their work cut out to make it to the Premier League

Irish players have their work cut out to make it to the Premier League

THIS weekend it started again, the 23rd edition of the Premier League, an English institution but also an Irish one.

Our fascination with English football has been a century or more in the making and even though our contribution to the workplace has declined, there is no sign of our emotional attachment disappearing.

Fans will continue to cross the Irish Sea and make the pilgrimage to Old Trafford, Anfield, Stamford Bridge, The Emirates, White Hart Lane, Loftus Road and the sporting cathedrals of the League's other 14 clubs.

But who will they be watching? In representative terms, Ireland remains the fourth highest provider of players to England's top flight, but at the top end of the market, the talent tap has been switched off.

James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman may have enjoyed excellent seasons at Everton last term but beyond this pair, who else made a splash?

The painful truth is the Premier League's key players in 2013/14 were Uruguayan, Argentinean, Spanish, Bosnian, Belgian, Brazilian and English. Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal were the top teams. Not one Republic of Ireland player featured.

"When I was starting out, Manchester United had Roy Keane and Denis Irwin," said Richard Dunne.

"Liverpool had Phil Babb and Jason McAteer. Arsenal hadn't any Irish players but Blackburn were a big team then and they had Jeff Kenna and Damien [Duff]. Leeds were decent. Gaz [Gary Kelly], Hartey [Ian Harte] and Stephen McPhail all played. Robbie [Keane] joined them. Shay [Given] was at Newcastle when they finished second in the League. Things are different for us now."

And they are different because England's clubs look at the world differently.

"At the start of the Premier League era, 90 per cent of the players were from the British Isles. Now it is under 30 per cent. There are less English and Irish ones around," said Don Givens, the former Irish Under-21 manager.

And the upshot is they are now plying their trade in England's sub-standard, lower leagues, which worries Givens.

"It isn't a similar style to international football by any means," he says. "In fact some of the games are quite awful."

If historic trends remained in place, this wouldn't be an issue because a glance back at the country's golden era - from Euro 88 to USA 94 - brings a reminder of how Jack Charlton's squads were filled with late-bloomers, men who worked their way up the ladder from either the League of Ireland or England's lowest two divisions.

There was Tony Galvin - once of Goole Town in the Northern Premier League before he lifted the Uefa Cup with Tottenham in 1984; Kevin Sheedy, a graduate of Hereford United and then two-time First Division champion with Everton; John Aldridge and Ray Houghton, former employees of Fourth Division clubs, who became heroes in Stuttgart just weeks after winning the title with Liverpool.

In fact, just five of Charlton's Euro 88 panel emerged straight from the academies of top flight clubs to play for their first-team, the rest taking a circuitous route to the top, a trend which continued for the next 15 years - Andy Townsend starting off with non-League Welling United before making it to England's top flight, a similar journey taken by Steve Finnan, who ended up with a Champions League medal in his pocket.

And the list goes on - Paul McGrath, Roy Keane, Liam O'Brien, Kevin Doyle, James McClean, Shane Long, Damien Delaney, Wes Hoolahan, Stephen Ward, Coleman, David Meyler, Keith Fahey and David Forde were the most notable graduates of the League of Ireland who later claimed international honours.

And if it wasn't for England's lower leagues then it is certain that Denis Irwin, Phil Babb, Jason McAteer, Terry Phelan and John Sheridan wouldn't have made it to the 1994 World Cup or Robbie Keane, Kenny Cunningham, Matt Holland, Mark Kinsella and Kevin Kilbane to the 2002 finals.

Euro 2012 too was an example of how Irish football owes its living to the divisions below the Premier League - with every squad member, bar Aiden McGeady, having spent some part of their career there.

But within the last decade, and particularly the last five years, there has been a distinct policy change by England's top clubs. Whereas once they scouted their lower leagues for uncut gems, now they are increasingly shopping abroad.

"I don't know why but foreign players seem to be cheaper than English or Irish ones," said Ian Taylor, the former Aston Villa midfielder. "Are they better suited to the Premier League? Some are but clubs make a lot of bad foreign signings as well."

It could well have been different had Taylor's Villa side - which contained 11 English players - stayed the course during the 1998-99 season and held onto the first place they had claimed at Christmas in that campaign. Instead, they faltered, finishing sixth in the end.

"And it was really after that year that clubs all around the Premier League expanded their scouting networks abroad," Taylor said. "I've no doubt our national team is suffering because of that."

And so is the Irish one. For once England's difficulty has not been Ireland's opportunity. "In a different era, I might have made it to the Premier League," regrets Sean St Ledger, whose entire career has been spent in either the Championship or League Two. "I'm 29 now and the chance may have passed me by. I still have hope but..."

The rest of us have less to be hopeful about. The fact that just six per cent of transfers into the Premier League in the last decade have come from England's lower divisions is a statistic which carries a health warning.

Ireland's Premier League population is dwindling and while the Championship is offering a safe home for them to go to, the standard remains dubious there.

And yet we don't know what is around the corner.

Twenty years ago, things were slightly better but still grim. Manchester United had won a double with Roy Keane and Denis Irwin playing influential roles in their success - but beyond this, the top end of the League was not top heavy with Irish players.

Blackburn finished second with just one Irish player on their books - Kevin Moran. He was 38. Liverpool also had just one Irishman, Ronnie Whelan, who was 33 and on his last legs. And Arsenal, who finished fourth, had Eddie McGoldrick.

Newcastle were a coming force but shy of Irish players. As were Nottingham Forest, due to finish third in the 1994-95 season. No one could have predicted then that Liverpool would sign Babb or that within four years, Dunne, Given, Keane and Duff would emerge.

Down the line, there could be another Dunne or Duff ready to break through. We just don't know yet.

"Ireland will always produce players," said Dunne, cheerfully. "These things tend to go in cycles."

But right now we are peddling uphill and into the wind.