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It is often a worry for professional football clubs and national teams that there are not enough young players progressing through the ranks.
Not only are younger players perceived as hungrier for places in any given starting XI, but their presence can often motivate older players to step up their game, even if that just means prolonging the rust from taking hold and ultimately grinding the gears to a halt.
This obsession with youth, particularly in football, is a rather peculiar one.
On the one hand, née foot, it is an intriguing, exciting prospect.
It is purchasing a piece of the future, like investing in Dell in the early 1990’s. The ‘potential’ is unknown, but intriguing and optimistic.
In contrast, it is merely a cry for stability; comfort in knowing that a particular player, or a group, will be there for a prolonged period of time to offer reassurance to the coaches and fans. All we humans want is some consistency; we don’t necessarily need consistency consistently.
On the face of it, this could be a worry for the Irish national team going forward.
There are not many young Irish footballers currently blazing a trail through England’s upper leagues as they have done in decades past. Think about Robbie Keane’s ascent with Tottenham; Damien Duff at Blackburn; Ian Harte with Leeds, and Roy Keane’s exploits with Manchester United, among others.
Ireland does have some talented players peppered throughout England’s top divisions, with Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick at Burnley, Ciaran Clark at Newcastle, Shane Duffy at Brighton, Callum O’Dowda at Bristol City, Chris Forrester at Peterborough, and the recently declared Scott Hogan at Aston Villa.
Other future “B’s in G” are likely cutting their teeth in the League of Ireland, with Cork City’s former talismanic striker Seán Maguire being the latest product to move to Preston North End, where he has joined the already strong Irish contingent of Daryl Horgan, Andy Boyle, Alan Browne and Greg Cunningham.
However, to look at this situation in another light, the Irish team in recent years has seemingly relied more on age and treachery rather than youth and exuberance.
While there is still a debate over Ireland’s best goalkeeper presently, it is impossible to ignore the plaudits of Shay Given and his contribution to the national team well into his 30’s, earning a staggering 134 caps in total.
Standing defiantly in front of Ireland’s most-capped goalkeeper for the majority of that time was John O’Shea. The 36-year-old, who is Ireland’s third most capped player (115), has only recently needed to pass the
ball torch to younger, more mobile centre-backs, but as of today has not announced his retirement from international football.
Further up the spine of the pitch you may find The Wheelbarrow, Glenn Whelan. At 33 he still could have a couple more years in the Ireland squad, and he has been a great asset in recent years – doing the unglamorous but effective grunt-work often neglected by modern midfielders.
Another late-bloomer to the Irish team was Wes Hoolahan, though many would argue he should have been an established part of the team much sooner. Overlooked during Giovanni Trapattoni’s tenure, Hoolahan has played 38 of his 40 international caps since turning 30 years old.
Arguably Ireland’s most technically skilled player, Wes will forever be remembered for his involvement in one of Ireland’s most iconic footballing moments.
Jonathan Walters is another example of an Irish player who seems to have only gotten better with age. Deployed as either a wide-forward or a striker, Walters’ hustle and tenacity is always something to be admired. One of five Irishmen currently in Sean Dyche’s hard-nosed Burnley squad, Watlers has played 27 of his 51 caps and scored 10 goals (4 in friendlies) for Ireland since turning 30.
Then there’s Robbie Keane. A goal-scoring anomaly, Keano played 146 games for the Republic of Ireland and scored 68 goals in total. He has scored more international goals than Drogba, Ibrahimovic, Messi (so far), David Villa, Eto’o, Rooney, Lewandowski, Henry, and the original Ronaldo have for their respective countries.
Even more impressively, Robbie scored 24 international goals (7 in friendlies) after his 30th birthday. For some perspective, Ireland’s second-highest top scorer of all-time is Niall Quinn with a total of 21 goals.
Ireland’s campaign to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia hinges on a playoff after finishing second in Group D behind Serbia. Martin O’Neill should be commended for his efforts with the team despite some results, but the spotlight should also be shone on some the players. A new ‘old guard’ is emerging, with key figures maturing in their roles.
Questions have been asked about the selection of Darren Randolph over Rob Elliot and Kieren Westwood, but the 30-year-old has stepped up in recent months to look a safe pair of hands. Regular first-team football at Garry Monk’s Middlesbrough seems to be better than the goalkeeping roulette he endured at West Ham.
Ciaran Clark, 28, had seven seasons of experience in the Premier League with Aston Villa before moving to Newcastle where he won the Championship last season under the stewardship of Rafa Benitez, a manager who is well versed in the art of defending.
Séamus Coleman has not played since March due to injury, but Ireland’s foremost right-back and recently appointed captain is clinical both in defence and attack. At 29, Coleman still arguably has his best years ahead of him.
Stephen Ward, otherwise known as “Wardy Alba”, has become a stalwart for Burnley over the past couple of seasons, and started this Premier League season with an exquisite goal against the reigning champions, Chelsea. At 32, playing regular Premier League football with a hard defensive edge, Ward has become a commanding presence while sporting the Irish kit.
David Meyler, 28, could take the mantle of Glenn Whelan in defensive midfield. Meyler was great in the final World Cup qualifying group game against Wales, and it is reassuring to know you have an enforcer who won’t refrain even if the opponent is in their 50s. His yellow card for a clumsy challenge on Wayne Hennessy in the dying embers of the Wales match means he will miss the first leg of the playoff, but if you want to make an omelette then you have to break a couple of
James McClean has the ability to become a true cult hero in Irish football mythology. His incessant, terrier-like scrambling is electrifying to watch; playing until every whistle which has usually been blown for a foul he hastily committed. Now 28, McClean has matured into somewhat of a leader for Ireland and a symbol of hope for the fans. A passionate individual both on and off the pitch, the Derry man can be the difference-maker for the Men in Green. As an added bonus, his name fits perfectly into the “Team of Garry Breens” song.
This is an uncharacteristically optimistic time for Irish football. A new core of players has been established and they have a manager who understands how to best utilize their strengths in an effective, if somewhat lacklustre, system.
Some of the aforementioned younger players – Duffy, Hendrick, Brady, Horgan – will hopefully continue this trend in the coming years. Eventually they will become the core of the Irish team, around which the next crop of younger players will learn and flourish.
The rust might seize the gears and some of the parts will change, but the machine will keep moving forward.