James McClean’s call-up to the Republic of Ireland squad for next week’s friendly with the Czech Republic casts the spot-light once more on the domestic game’s role in the development of international-calibre players.
The League of Ireland formed the conveyor belt for Irish internationals before the talent drain to England became a flood.
That torrent has reduced to a trickle, however. The numbers of Irish kids moving to English clubs in their teens has decreased with European sides having access to young players from all corners of the globe.
Despite its decline in the intervening years, the Irish domestic game enjoyed a remarkable transformation to full-time professionalism in the last decade that saw rapid improvements in Europe and an explosion in wages that threatened to usurp Scotland in its appeal to attract talent.
The story of Irish football’s burst bubble is well documented. Clubs have gone to the wall; some have survived and altered their structure while others remain in trouble.
And yet, this era of professionalism resulted in a remarkable return of the game here to its role as provider, albeit still circuitously through English clubs, to the Irish national team.
Kevin Doyle and Shane Long are the stand-out names, recruited by Reading from Cork City.
Just recently, present manager Brian McDermott urged aspiring young players to stay in Ireland and learn their trade to follow in the footsteps of the front men.
They were joined in England’s professional game by Keith Fahey, an eye-catching player for St. Patrick’s Athletic who won PFAI Player of the Year in 2008 before going straight into the Birmingham City first team, scoring in the game that saw them promoted to the Premier League.
Seamus Coleman was nominated for PFA Young Player of the Year last season and claimed the gong at Everton after crossing the Irish Sea from Sligo Rovers.
Stephen Ward went from a striker’s role at Bohemians to the Wolves defence.
Despite the collapse of the structure here, the professional mindset appears to have remained in the League of Ireland. Clubs that could not adapt have gone. Shamrock Rovers are the shining example, the first Irish side in history to qualify for the group stages of a European competition.
And the eyes of England have turned back to the Emerald Isle.
Enda Stevens went from Tallaght Stadium to Villa Park in January and has already made the bench for Alex McLeish’s side. His team-mate at the Hoops, Karl Sheppard has signed for Reading.
James McClean is the latest to raise eyebrows with superb performances for Sunderland since signing from Derry City.
The 22-year-old made his début in Martin O’Neill’s first game in charge of the Black Cats and his meteoric rise was watched closely by international manager Giovanni Trapattoni. His widely lauded inclusion in the squad for the friendly against the Czech Republic makes him the latest in an extraordinary list of recent graduates from the League of Ireland to the national team.
League of Ireland International XI:
Seamus Coleman, Damien Delaney, Stephen Ward
Keith Fahey, Wes Hoolahan, David Meyler, James McClean
Shane Long, Kevin Doyle, Noel Hunt
Subs: Brian Murphy, Conor Sammon