It’s been a question on the tongues of many fans, managers and indeed players in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the years, yet why exactly has there been a lack of talent making the short journey across the Irish Sea to top clubs in Scotland and England?
After the heroic exploits of former Linfield man Paul Smyth, who scored a late winner on his QPR debut in a 2-1 victory over Cardiff City, many young stars from both the Irish Premiership and the League of Ireland are being tipped for a similar future. Countless moves admittedly haven’t quite had the impact that was once expected, yet those unlucky few – plagued by injuries, failures to settle and background distractions – have fortunately reignited their careers back in their homeland. Rory Donnelly and Joe Gormley, both of Belfast side Cliftonville, are not alone after high-profile switches to Swansea and Peterborough respectively, yet after turbulent times for varying reasons across the water, both have since returned to north Belfast, and the two have certainly hit the ground running this season. Linfield’s Jordan Stewart is another on this ill-fated list of young talents, whose dreams were simply tarnished by arriving at the wrong time, and often due to forces out of their control, yet the young forward hasn’t given up on his dream and continues to earn his trade with Irish Premiership giants Linfield, under the watchful eye of national hero David Healy.
Fortunately for the highly-rated players and managers currently residing in the north and south of Ireland, these unfortunate transfers are massively outweighed by the vast number of successful moves from the peripheral, unimportant shores to the dizzy heights of top-class football. The mind wanders all the way back to Roy and Robbie Keane, to Damien Duff and Shay Given, and all the way back to the dazzling feet of George Best, to national heroes Gerry Armstrong and Pat Jennings. The list of legends goes on and on.
Heading towards more recent times however and the talents still prevail, yet perhaps are not as prevalent as they should be. Think of the likes of Harry Arter, Stephen Ward, Shane Duffy and Robbie Brady all featuring regularly in England’s top division against some of the finest talents in world football. Think of Northern Ireland captain Steven Davis, now-legendary defenders Gareth McAuley and Chris Brunt, a group who stand tallest in a lengthy list of more than capable players who have made the remarkable journey of nothing into something, yet the list is undeniably getting shorter, worryingly at a time when both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland continue to defy all the odds on the international stage. It is perhaps the underdog, never give up nature of both nations that epitomises the players that originate from such insignificant areas of the world with regards to footballing superstardom, yet if more top clubs took the risk with the youthful contingent that is constantly at work in the north and south, perhaps then the world may finally stand up and take notice.
Frustratingly, however, when these dreams finally surface, while the players gain the obvious benefits, it is the clubs that often fall short. European conquerors Dundalk typify such a situation where, after a phenomenal Europa League journey with the then League of Ireland champions, first team regulars Daryl Horgan and Andrew Boyle both joined Preston North End in the immediate aftermath, both on a free transfer. The situation mirrors countless others, most recently Smyth’s move to QPR from Linfield, for a fee thought to be in the region of under £200,000; a massive sum for an Irish Premiership side, yet mere pennies to an English Championship outfit. One mustn’t forget that the majority of these Northern Irish and Irish league players are balancing two jobs, with the first task often comprising working for the local council, doing the rounds as a postman or even finishing their time as students as part of their ‘day-job’, with the second, inferior challenge of playing semi-professional football. Such money and such a move is a genuine dream come true for those deservingly getting call to a higher standard of football and indeed of life, and it is a shame when the clubs that have produced such talent are disregarded when it boils down to the nitty gritty financial detail, where the dominant party ensure as little money as possible leaves their oversized wallets.
On the field of play and it is Crusaders and Coleraine who continue to battle it out for top spot in the Irish Premiership, and both sides have relied heavily on their young stars to guide them through thick and thin. Winger Gavin Whyte has simply stunned his compatriots this season for the former with 15 goals, leading to back-to-back Player of the Month awards for November and December, while forward Jamie McGonigle isn’t far off with nine goals this campaign. Both have starred for their respective sides in an often-gruelling fixture list on unflattering playing surfaces and testing conditions, both shine brightly at just 21 years of age. Not only is there an increase in youth getting their chance on the field, there is huge reason for positivity off it as countless clubs have boasted record attendance figures this season, with thousands making their way to the top games over the recent festive period.
It truly is a time for celebration and optimism both north and south of the border, where the nations of Northern Ireland and the Republic proved their worth throughout a phenomenal Euro 2016 campaign, followed by a hugely admirable 2018 World Cup journey that ultimately ended in heartbreak. With an inevitably competitive Irish Premiership well underway, on top of a League of Ireland season itching to kick off, the island of Ireland is well and truly on the map, where its young footballers live in exciting times as they look to kickstart their promising careers in the bright lights of either England or Scotland.