It may have gone largely under the radar, but a milestone was reached on October 8th when Joe Hodge became the 200th Irish footballer to appear in the Premier League.
The Republic of Ireland Under-21 international came off the bench for Wolverhampton Wanderers in their 3-0 defeat to Chelsea to make his senior debut. But it also doubled up as a significant achievement for Irish players as a whole.
That overall figure has been pushed to 202 this month after Connor Ronan of Wolves and Tom Cannon of Everton made their senior debuts.
In the first thirty years of the Premier League, there were 197 different Irish players who featured in England’s top division. This season, Gavin Bazunu (Southampton), Conor Coventry (West Ham United) and Hodge brought that up to the 200 mark. Not bad for a little country, huh?
— Wolves (@Wolves) October 8, 2022
Actually, it is quite a feat when one considers that Ireland has produced more Premier League players than countries like Italy and Germany. Okay, some of the other nations have quite strong domestic leagues of their own but, still, the breakthrough of so many Irish players into the ‘richest league in world sport’ should not be underestimated.
In Away Days: Thirty Years of Irish Footballers in the Premier League the spotlight focuses on those players. There are thirty different players interviewed – each with their own unique story and colorful insights to their Premier League experience. Or the Premiership, as it was known when the likes of Niall Quinn and Ray Houghton were involved in its early years.
As the top flight of English football has evolved, since its inception in 1992, some of the beautiful game’s most gifted artists have graced its pitches and entertained crowds from around the world. But where do Irish players fit in amongst its very best? It’s a good question and one that Shay Given believes deserves more debate.
Given is the record appearance holder for Irish players in the Premier League with 451 games notched up. He was an outstanding goalkeeper for Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United, Manchester City, Aston Villa and Stoke City. Many observers would even suggest that he was amongst the best players in his position during his time in the league. A convincing case for that can easily be made.
The same goes for the likes of Roy Keane, Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Paul McGrath, Richard Dunne and Seamus Coleman. They are all players who excelled in their respective positions and showed the world that Ireland can produce players of real quality. But after 30 years, where does Ireland rank amongst the 112 other nations to have been represented in the Premier League?
In Away Days, there is plenty of evidence to support any claim that Ireland deserves a high position on any such ranking table. While there have been some star players – such as those aforementioned – there have been many more who proved to be integral to their teams. Take, for example, Glenn Whelan who played almost 300 games for Stoke City and finished with a better pass completion rate than Mesut Ozil, Paul Scholes, Scott Parker and Paul Pogba.
Whelan is typical of the kind of Irish player profiled in Away Days because he defied the odds to make it to the Premier League. So too did John Egan, who had to drop all the way down the divisions in England in order to work his way back up. Or John O’Shea, who broke into a star-studded Manchester United team and picked up five Premier League winners’ medals when most people told him that he would never make it at that club.
Success is gauged differently by each of the Irish players who were involved in those first three decades of the league. Paddy McCarthy may have only played once for Crystal Palace, but at least he got that one opportunity. Alan Moore played 34 more games than that and can share stories of being held in similar regard as his more famous Middlesbrough team-mates, such as Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli. And someone like Kevin Doyle made the most of his experience after spending a few years in the League of Ireland wondering if he would ever get a crack at making it on the other side of the Irish Sea.
It’s not that Irish players merit a tokenistic pat on the back for simply playing in the Premier League, it’s that they should be commended for succeeding where so many have tripped up. With 98% of academy players told that they are not good enough and the transfer market spread wider than ever before, there has never been a more competitive era to ‘make it’ in the most watched league in the world.
There is now a new generation of Irish players aiming to follow in the footsteps of Given, Coleman and Dunne etc. and they deserve their shot. The likes of Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhín Kelleher, Wolves defender Nathan Collins and Brighton & Hove Albion striker Evan Ferguson have already shown flashes of what they can do, so there is reason to be upbeat that more Irishmen will carve out their own legacy.
Regardless of what is to come, there is no doubting the impact that Irish players have made on the Premier League.
‘Away Days: Thirty Years of Irish Footballers in the Premier League’ is published by New Island Books.