It was an unusually mild November night on Tuesday the 14th of November 2017, the weather was quite reflective of the mood in the Irish capital. The typically dour and forlorn nature of Irish football supporters was nowhere to be found, a win against Denmark to book our place in Russia for the 2018 World Cup was considered nothing more than a formality. This attitude was just as unusual as the weather – a sign. For 23 minutes, Joxer and his merry men were on their way to Moscow and the Van wasn’t going too stopped once it left Inchicore. But the Tottenham cockerel crew both loud and shrill. Christian Eriksen unleashed shock and awe upon Lansdowne Road with a scintillating hat-trick, and when the full time whistle sounded the stadium was all but empty.
In the immediate aftermath of the capitulation we had all just witnessed, the usual suspects were to be found proclaiming that the apocalypse of Irish football had arrived. The globalisation of English football was blamed for the lack of Irish talent emerging to replace the likes of Robbie Keane and Damien Duff. This cataclysmic event would finally force the FAI to look inwards on itself and force change, cried the talking heads. What many people decided to ignore was that the FAI had already begun this process.
Of the 14 players that played for Ireland that night, 6 of them began their careers in the League of Ireland. That figure would have been 7 if the captain, Seamus Coleman, was not injured. In the future, this is only going to increase because proper youth set-up structures are finally being put in place. League of Ireland clubs will now have a pathway all the way from Under 13 to the senior squad. The best young players from around the country will now be competing against each other on a regular basis. This doesn’t mean that the elite schoolboy clubs have been pushed out the picture but to remain part of player development they must align themselves with League of Ireland clubs. While this won’t fix all the problems facing Irish football, it is a step in the right direction. Coming back from this tangent, many people forgot about this development when catastrophizing in the wake of the defeat to Denmark.
Below is a list of talented young players ready to break through and raise the mood and hopes for both the future of Irish football and how the League of Ireland can contribute towards it.
Ronan Curtis – Derry City – Forward
Ronan Curtis is one of a myriad of young Derry City players whose game has benefitted from the guidance of Kenny Shiels. Taking up a position wide on the left, he is comfortable as a striker and scored 8 goals in 2017 as the 22-year-old continued to hone his game. Despite Derry City being hammered 10– 2 by Midtjylland in Europa League qualifying, Curtis was one of the Candystripes’ standout performers as he scored one of their goals and should have won a penalty for his side. The display put him on the radar of Swedish club Östersunds, whose chairman personally hoped his team could sign Curtis. However, the proposed transfer fell through and Ronan Curtis has started the 2018 season for Derry City and has struck 4 times in 11 games. After declining a move to Sweden, and his impressive start to the season, Curtis has invited interest in his signature from Portsmouth – currently in League One. He has also picked up 5 caps for the Republic of Ireland U21s.
Conor O’Malley – Peterborough United – Goalkeeper
After initially joining St. Patrick’s Athletic in 2014, the young shot stopper was one of the reasons the Saints managed to avoid relegation in 2017, despite playing just half of the season with them. Pat’s struggled throughout much of the season, but O’Malley was a guiding light and began being hailed as Ireland’s ‘best young goalkeeper’. These performances didn’t go unnoticed, and in August he followed former Saint, Chris Forrester, to Peterborough in League One. The club’s chairman claimed that they had to fend off interest from Championship clubs to secure the services of O’Malley. At 23, and at the rate goalkeepers develop, he is most definitely a player we could one day see in the green jersey.
Kieran Sadlier – Cork City – Forward
Upon his arrival in Turners Cross in July 2017, from Sligo Rovers for a reported €40,000 fee, the Rep. of Ireland U21 player stated he was one step closer to achieving his goal of winning a senior cap for his country. Capable of playing across the front three, Sadlier was saddled with picking up where Seán Maguire left off when he moved to Preston. After coming through West Ham’s youth academy, he bounced around the lower reaches of the English Football League with spells at St. Mirren and Killie before eventually settling in at Sligo in 2016. During his time with the Bit ‘o Red, the 23-year-old 15 goals in 48 appearances which earned him his move to Cork City. Initially, life in Cork began slowly for the pacey attacker with 2 goals in 13 games and the team stuttering to the league title after the talismanic Maguire left. Nonetheless, Sadlier finished the season on a high as he scored the winning penalty for Cork City to win their first league and FAI Cup double in their history. Sadlier has started the 2018 season in phenomenal form with 7 goals from 12 games – including a goal direct from a corner kick – as City look to make strides in Europe and repeat their historic feats this season.
Warren O’Hora – Brighton & Hove Albion – Defender
Despite growing up in the shadow of Dalymount’s famous floodlights and playing for the Bohemian’s youth teams, Warren O’Hora was bound for the United States on a football scholarship. Nevertheless, the 18-year-old rejected the scholarship, which forbids him from playing senior football, to try earning a move to England and he came into the Bohs team in time to see them make a late push for a European place. He starred in 11 games, playing with experience beyond his years as he instantly acclimatised to League of Ireland football. O’Hora played a huge role in away wins against Shamrock Rovers, St. Pat’s and Cork City (despite coming off injured against Cork) as Bohs ultimately finished 4 points from a place in Europe. He has also picked up 2 Republic of Ireland U19 caps in 2017. This form saw him earn a move to Premier League side Brighton in January 2018. With his impressive and rapid development so far, hopefully it won’t be too long before we see O’Hora making waves on the south coast in the Premier League – and for Ireland.
Trevor Clarke – Shamrock Rovers – Defender/Winger
Since coming home from Middlesbrough in 2015, Trevor Clarke has shown his versatility by proving he is able to play anywhere on the left side of the pitch. Despite being bounced around as a left– back and left winger, the 19-year-old continued to sharpen and develop his dynamic game throughout what was a disappointing season in 2017, by Shamrock Rovers’ typically lofty ambitions. He scored four times last season, including goals against Cork City and Bohemians, and has picked up 10 U19 caps with U21 recognition evading him thus far, it is seemingly only a matter of time. His progress hasn’t gone unnoticed, however, as he has been linked with a move back across the Irish Sea with Southampton rumoured to be one of the clubs enquiring about him. The fee has been touted at around €500,000 – a figure that would make even Shamrock Rovers jump at. Much was expected of Clarke for the 2018 season, that he would become the next high-profile player to leave the League. Knee ligament damage has brought his season to a close before it truly began, hopefully for Rovers fans he can come back stronger.
Aaron McEneff – Derry City – Midfielder
After returning from Tottenham in the summer of 2015, the diminutive playmaker signed up for the 2016 with Derry City and scored 6 goals in 29 league appearances as Kenny Shiels guided Derry to third place that season. He elected to stay with the Candystripes for the 2017 season, which initially began with promise for the young team until the devastating news of the passing of their captain, Ryan McBride, derailed them before they could really get going. McEneff, and indeed his teammates also, rallied and managed to secure European football for 2018; in the process McEneff scored 9 goals in 29 appearances and he also scored the other goal in the 10– 2 thumping in the Europa League. Like many promising players from Northern Ireland, Aaron McEneff found himself having to choose between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. He looked set to make the switch to the Republic, but there was a delay in processing the relevant paperwork and now at 22 years of age, he missed his window to win an U21 cap. Despite this, he should take encouragement from the path that Wes Hoolahan took to wearing the green jersey. McEneff has started the 2018 season blistering fast, the clear standout in a classy Derry City side and he is their top scorer with 6 goals in 11 games.
Michael Johnston – Winger – Celtic
This wouldn’t be a complete list of potential future Irish internationals without the inclusion of a Scottish-born player. Towards the tail-end of Celtic’s 2016/17 unbeaten domestic season, Brendan Rodgers handed Johnston his first team debut in a 4-1 victory over St. Johnstone. The highly rated winger, amid rumoured interest from Chelsea, immediately signed a new 3-year contract with the Hoops in the aftermath of that appearance. Despite representing Scotland at underage level, it is believed that the FAI are hoping that Johnston follows the path of Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy in declaring for the Republic of Ireland. Who could blame him if he did choose that path? It will be over 20 years since Scotland last qualified for an international tournament by the time Euro 2020 comes around. If one thing is certain, however, it is to never underestimate the FAI when it comes to the ‘Granny rule’.