There was once a rich tradition of Irish representation among the Premier League’s top clubs. Players like Roy Keane, Paul McGrath, Jason McAteer and Damien Duff, to name but a few, are examples of Irishmen who have graced the Premier League’s upper echelon – in some cases winning multiple titles, in other cases becoming cult heroes at England’s finest footballing institutions.
But in recent years, the impact of Irish footballers on the Premier League has lessened somewhat. Currently, none of Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, or Chelsea have a single Irish player in their senior squad. Young Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher and teenage striker Troy Parrott are the only Irishman to make a senior appearance for one of the top-six clubs this campaign, but his two outings came in weakened League Cup line-ups, and with Alisson Becker unlikely to be ousted anytime soon, the chances of seeing Irish footballers competing for the Premier League title in the near future look slim.
Despite that, one club has provided a welcome throwback this season to those days of Irish footballing excellence. Sheffield United, to use the well-worn cliché, have been a breath of fresh air in the Premier League this season, playing direct yet exciting football under manager Chris Wilder. At the time of writing, the Blades sit in seventh place in the table, just four points behind fourth-placed Chelsea, and have an outside chance in football betting of finishing in the top six.
The club has an Irish quartet that have played a massive role both in helping Sheffield United win promotion and in making such an impact in the Premier League. John Egan, Enda Stevens, David McGoldrick and Callum Robinson are all core members of the Ireland national team, and have been doing their country proud at Sheffield United, each bringing different qualities to Wilder’s ranks.Embed from Getty Images
Egan is the backbone of the Blades’ rear-guard, a defensive maestro who has developed into arguably Ireland’s best centre-half. The former Brentford man possesses all those traditional qualities an Irish centre-half should embody – grit, determination, and a willingness to put his body on the line. These are the attributes that bring to mind those centre-halves that have worn the green shirt before him, the likes of McGrath and Richard Dunne.
But in addition to those basic traits, Egan has a footballing ability that Irish defenders have perhaps lacked in the past. He has an eye for a pass, and is comfortable getting the ball down and finding a teammate. The Irish national team has been in want of a composed, ball-playing centre-half in recent times, and Egan fits the bill nicely.
Stevens, too, has enjoyed a new lease of life at Bramall Lane. The left-back is a League of Ireland graduate, having played for UCD, St Pat’s and Shamrock Rovers before making the move to Aston Villa in 2012. After initially failing to find his feet in English football, Stevens impressed at Portsmouth and earned a move to Sheffield United, and he hasn’t looked back since. The 29-year-old is a full-blooded defender, and his form for the Blades has led to Stevens making Ireland’s left-back spot his own.
McGoldrick and Robinson are two men who have been bit-part players for the Blades, but their contributions have been important nonetheless. Robinson joined from Preston North End in the summer and scored a vital goal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season. McGoldrick was the club’s Player of the Year last season as they won promotion from the Championship, and although he is yet to net in the Premier League, he provides a strong presence in attack for the Blades.
In these four players, Ireland have a quadrant of internationals performing well at the top end of the Premier League. In recent years, the Irish team has been filled with those who play for clubs battling relegation or struggling for form. A winning mentality transfers from club to international form, and it’s no surprise that Egan, Stevens and McGoldrick were Ireland’s best players in the final Euro 2020 qualifier against Denmark. Wilder has bred a winning mindset at a club where standards are higher than ever, and it’s refreshing to see these Irish players benefitting from this.