As difficult as it might be for younger generations to imagine, there was a time when footballers from the Republic of Ireland were among the leading lights in English football’s biggest and most successful clubs.
Whereas nowadays the Irish are more likely to ply their trade at clubs like Burnley, Hull City and Stoke, they once dined at the very top table in England’s top-flight; helping their sides to major domestic and European honours instead of slugging it out in mid-table or in relegation battles.
And indeed, as any Arsenal fan will know, there was a time when the Irish were the darlings of the Gunners faithful, particularly in the 70s and 80s when the likes of Liam Brady, David O’Leary and Frank Stapleton (before his move to Manchester United) often lit up Highbury with their differing skills.
In a new book, written by Irish author Kevin O’Neill, these halcyon days of the Irish are recalled with fondness. And yet, they form only part of the narrative in ‘Where Have All The Irish Gone? The Sad Demise of Ireland’s Once Relevant Footballers’, as O’Neill digs deep to produce a factual, hard-hitting account of what has happened to the Irish in top-class English football over the past 20 years.
‘As Arsenal fans will fully recognise, Irish players have played pivotal roles in the history of their club,’ said O’Neill.
‘Liam Brady, to be fair, was a genius and wonderful servant to Arsenal, both as a player and later in his role in the Academy. David O’Leary is a club legend and rightly so, having played in over 700 games, and the likes of John Devine, Frank Stapleton and Niall Quinn were very good players for the Arsenal, too. In that sense, Ireland was kind to Arsenal and vice versa,’ he added.
But, as the author rightly points out in the book, published by the UK-based Pitch Publishers, surviving at the high end of English football has become extremely difficult for the Irish since the inception of the Premier League in 1992. With more and more foreign players flooding to the country, the chances of Irish players coming through in the top clubs (not to mention the equally tough task faced by English, Scottish and Welsh players) have become few and far between. Indeed, Arsenal has not had an Irish debutant since 2005 when a then highly-rated Anthony Stokes featured in the League Cup. A short time earlier, midfielder Patrick Cregg had also debuted for the Gunners, but neither went on to fulfil their potential in north London.
‘With Liam Brady heading the Arsenal Academy for many years, it seemed like efforts were always made to get an Irish player to make the grade,’ said O’Neill.
‘I recall the likes of Graham Barrett, Stephen Bradley and Keith Fahey all joining Arsenal with high hopes but unfortunately, as with most top English clubs in the last 20 years or so, their opportunities to break in the first-team became quite limited due to the unbelievable level of competition that stood in their way once the leading clubs started signing players from right across the globe. The level of competition, for young Irish players, is now at an all-time high and you have to wonder will we ever again see the likes of Liam Brady and David O’Leary become key players at clubs like Arsenal,’ he added.
Former Arsenal youth and reserve player Shane Tracy (who has played in the League of Ireland since his release by Arsenal in 2007) is interviewed in the book about his time in north London, while there’s plenty of musings by Brady about the direction that Academy football has taken in recent times.
Other big names to be interviewed in the book include current Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill and Richard Dunne, while the writer also researches what happens to young Irish footballers after they are rejected by English clubs.
‘The result, I hope, is a factual and honest account of what has happened to the Irish in top-class English football over the past 20 years. I try to find out how and why their fortunes have deteriorated so dramatically – and quickly – while also recalling better times when the Irish triumphed in England with great regularity,’ said O’Neill.
‘Through a series of face-to-face interviews with current and retired players, the book describes how young Irish teenagers fend for themselves in the cut-throat world of Academy football and considers those who have fallen by the wayside in their pursuit of fame and footballing fulfilment in England. I have also looked at the current structures in the Irish game, to see if we could do things differently, and I pose the question of whether the Irish can ever again prosper at English football’s most successful clubs. I really hope that football supported, in Ireland and England, enjoy the book and take something from it, and I’m sure the large Irish Arsenal following (the author’s seven-year-old son is a Gunner despite his father being an avid Evertonian!) will enjoy plenty of it,’ he added.
* Where Have All the Irish Gone? The Sad Demise of Ireland’s Once Relevant Footballers will be released by http://www.pitchpublishing.co.ukon October 16 2017, is priced at £12.99, and will be available to purchase at Amazon, Waterstones and various other book stores and platforms to be confirmed.
The publishers say the book tells a story of dramatic decline, an ‘ultimate riches-to-rags affair’ in which Irish players have largely become irrelevant at the top English clubs.
The author can be reached on Twitter @kevoneillwriterFollow @kevoneillwriter