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26th May 2024

Why it’s time for Irish footballers to start looking beyond England

Ronan Calvert

Saturday was a great day for the Irish abroad.

Yesterday’s action hopefully offered a glimpse into the future for Republic of Ireland players and their club football fortunes.

A day which saw Adam Idah score a last-minute Scottish Cup-winning goal for Celtic against Rangers was only made better by two of his international teammates making impacts of their own on the continent.

Idah’s occasional strike partner, Troy Parrott, bagged a first-half hattrick for Dutch Eredivisie side Excelsior in a relegation play-off, while Cork centre-back Jake O’Brien scored in Lyon’s 2-1 French Cup final defeat to PSG.

The three performances occurring on the same day sparked plenty of conversation from Irish fans online, the general consensus being that leaving the English Football League for other pastures only helps improve Irish players’ careers.

Idah, who was a sensation for Ireland at underage level, managed just 17 goals in 115 Norwich appearances but netted as many as eight goals in half a season for Celtic after signing on loan in January.

Similarly, Parrott, who never scored more than four goals in any of his three Championship loan moves, has thirteen goals in this year’s Eredivisie as well as five assists. That’s also three more goals than he managed in League One with MK Dons.

Jake O’Brien, meanwhile, who never made an appearance for Crystal Palace and spent an unmemorable loan spell with Swindon Town, played 31 games for Lyon this campaign with four goals and two assists from centre-half.

English grind takes its toll on Irish bodies.

All three players could have easily spent this season in the Championship but more and more evidence is mounting that its rough-and-tumble 46-game league season is best avoided.

That isn’t to say Irish players haven’t had good seasons in the Championship or League One in recent years – they have.

However, it is very difficult for a player to sustain the Wednesday-Saturday fixture schedule for six months, or even from one season to the next.

Former Ireland manager Stephen Kenny explained as much to the media last year:

“I have no problem with the standard of the Championship but it is relentless, with games every three days,” explained the now St Patrick’s Athletic manager after beating Gibraltar 4-0 in Faro.

“The players are absolutely on their knees and what happens then is you have repeat hamstring injuries.

“Three Irish players had operations on hamstrings over the last year. The last resort for hamstrings is an operation. We’ve had three. And that puts you out for three months.”

In a league where players and managers speak freely about dependence on painkillers and injections, it is often the most durable athletes who become managers’ favourites.

Take Ireland midfielder engine Jayson Molumby who was a player of the year candidate for West Brom in the 2022/2023 season.

He shone for his country against Scotland and Ukraine before that club season started, continued to excel for the Baggies throughout the winter, and went on to produce an outstanding performance for the Boys in Green against France that March.

However, a month later he was playing through an ankle problem – something his manager Carlos Corberan was quick to shower with praise.

“The commitment that he has with himself, with the club, with the team, he was playing today with a lot of pain in the ankle,” he said.

“He (Molumby) was having to have an injection to play today, yesterday he couldn’t complete training, only half, but he is going to make a career because he has the determination to make it.

“Some people with adversity – they give up! And Molumby is not going to do that.”

Might be one for the PFA.

Season on, season off.

Molumby saw out the rest of the season and continued on with Ireland to poor effect as they fell to a 2-1 away defeat to Greece; a defeat which all but spelt the end for Stephen Kenny.

And the result of his “determination” championed by Corberan? He spent the season just gone barely able to participate.

Come January 2024 there was “a fitness blow for Jayson Molumby, who has been suffering with an ankle injury” and, by April, Corberan said: “With Molumby, it’s an injury which needs time.

“It’s not a muscle injury, it’s the protocol of a specific surgery which we need to respect.”

Preston’s Alan Browne is another Ireland player whose performance levels appear to fluctuate from season to season in the league, and Jason Knight will be a good case study next season.

Knight played all 46 games for Bristol City in this season’s edition of the Championship but his body will be hard-pressed to repeat the trick as another 46 encounters of fast-paced physical football await as soon as August.

Knight, Browne and Molumby, because of their impressive physical attributes, would be considered the perfect profile for the Championship but the league’s nature rather than quality still seems to have a negative effect.

“The more players we get in the Premier League and European leagues the better as it’s one game a week,” continued Kenny in the aforementioned interview.

“The explosive players like [Chiedozie] Ogbene, we missed him in the summer, Callum Robinson, Callum O’Dowda, Troy Parrott, all had hamstring injuries.

“The Championship is tough and relentless. To have consistency in the squad would be ideal. It’s an occupational hazard being in that league.

“Particularly the explosive players suffer from hamstring injuries. Michael Obafemi, we should be building the team around Michael.

“He should be integral to our team, he is very talented, but he has not been able to get fit.”

When nippy Brighton playmaker Andrew Moran signed on loan for Blackburn last summer, he hit the ground running with a string of impressive performances and performances turned into goals and assists come November.

As proven by multiple talents in the Championship down through the years, technical talent can shine among the chaos. Wes Hoolahan is another who managed it in a league of high standards and high demands.

The huge problem for Irish football however, is that the physical toll on the players – both because of the playing style and the calendar – is utterly detrimental to their performance levels over a period of time.

By March, and after a short period of being deployed as a deeper midfielder, Moran began to underperform and was consequently benched for the rest of the season.

Given that Blackburn were nearly relegated, evidence might suggest that Moran’s next step should be to League One like Conor Coventry and Gavin Kilkenny before him – two other former Ireland under-21 internationals with a delicate touch.

But no.

There is another route for the modern Irish footballer.

One taken by O’Brien, Parrott and Idah and one taken by Josh Cullen.

Cullen who thrived for Anderlecht before also excelling in the Championship with Burnley (it can be done).

But also Cullen who cut a jaded figure for Burnley and Ireland a season later, two noticeable gears below what he’s capable of when well rested.

For the sake of their season-to-season form and fitness, Irish players need to learn from each other’s woes and take the leap to salvage better careers for themselves.

Leaving the familiarity of English football is no easy thing, but God knows their bodies will thank them for it.

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