independent

Sunday 8 December 2019

Green shoots for the future of Irish football

Aaron Connolly inaction for the Republic of Ireland Under-21 side
Aaron Connolly inaction for the Republic of Ireland Under-21 side

As Kermit the Frog prophetically sang to us many moons ago, 'It's not easy being green', a lyric that has often rang true for Irish football supporters, particularly when you consider some of the muppets we've had to endure over the years.

It would take an eternal optimist to deny that there's been plenty of doom and gloom hanging like a foreboding cloud over the Republic of Ireland international squad in recent years.

After some earlier success, Martin O'Neill allowed his tenure to drag on far too long, and by the time he finally departed plenty of damage had been done, with a complete apathy creeping in among the general public.

Mick McCarthy was then brought in as a sticking plaster to cover up the abrasion and allow the skin to knit back together, and in fairness he has managed to do that so far, keeping us very much in the mix for Euro 2020 qualification.

That said, the football has been far from pleasing on the eye as we struggled to victories over Gibraltar and Georgia and hung on in there to snatch draws against fellow qualification hopefuls Denmark and Switzerland.

The one good thing about the Irish performances is that they've shown the doggedness and durability of a heavy-duty plaster as they stuck to the task to garner unlikely points when the chips were down.

There's an end in sight to the unsavoury John Delaney debacle, although the jury is still very much out on whether the conclusion will be a satisfactory one or not. Still, it looks like Irish football may be finally able to turn a corner.

Those particular wounds will understandably still take a long time to heal, but one area where we are already seeing green shoots is between the white lines on the pitch.

The go-to phrase for most casual supporters for the past number of years has been 'we just don't have the players' but it finally looks like we have a promising crop of youngsters coming through that can squash that train of thought.

If Aaron Connolly's performance on his first Premier League start didn't get you to sit up and take notice and get excited about the future, maybe the beautiful game just isn't for you.

The 19-year-old was simply phenomenal for Brighton against top-flight big boys Spurs, showing a striker's instinct to net in the first-half, before adding a superb second after the interval, with his display earning him a call-up to Mick McCarthy's senior squad ahead of the crunch ties against Georgia and Switzerland.

The Galway teenager isn't the only Irish youngster turning heads across the water as Troy Parrott continues to gain rave reviews at Tottenham, while Southampton's Michael Obafemi looks to have a bright future, as does Adam Idah at Norwich City.

Bournemouth shot-stopper Mark Travers and Liverpool netminder Caoimhín Kelleher will also hope to continue their upward curve, and Ireland could be spoiled for choice in the goalkeeping department in the years ahead.

Of course, the transition won't happen overnight, but the performances of the Under-19s and Under-21s would certainly whet the appetite for better days in the not-too-distant future.

If a handful of the new boys can be blooded while some of the older heads are still there to lend them a helping hand, it would do wonders in building their confidence.

When everyone is fit there's a decent sprinkling of experienced Premier League players around, like captain Seamus Coleman and Brighton centre-half Shane Duffy, as well as Burnley trio Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and Kevin Long.

Premier League new boys Sheffield United boast a quartet of Irish internationals in their ranks, with Enda Stevens, John Egan, David McGoldrick and Callum Robinson plying their trade for the Blades.

Southampton striker Shane Long's best days may be behind him, but he still has something to offer if only as an impact sub, while Crystal Palace midfielder James McCarthy is still only 28.

Given Matt Doherty's displays at Wolves you'd have to hope that he could become a regular starter for Ireland, while Conor Hourihane, who is performing well for newly-promoted Aston Villa, can be a key player for both club and country for the next few seasons.

The players may not be from the most glamorous clubs, but at least they're performing at the highest level week in and week out, a position we haven't always found ourselves in.

Hopefully Mick McCarthy can achieve his primary goal of Euro 2020 qualification, and no matter how we fare at that tournament, the clouds are beginning to part to show sunnier times.

When Stephen Kenny steps into the hot seat he'll have some exciting talent to work with.

Then the plasters can be discarded and the air let in to heal the sores of the past.

In the words of The Muppets: 'It's time to play the music, It's time to light the lights'.

Hopefully, we'll be raising the curtain to reveal a new dawn for Irish football.

Wexford People

News