Two more days until the dawn of a new era for the Republic of Ireland senior men’s team and, with Mick McCarthy’s hand back on the tiller, there has been an inevitable focus on the contrast between his current rank and file and those under his command when he first roamed international waters with the Boys in Green.
Paul Kelly laid the discrepancies in quality bare in a simple and highly effective manner in these pages today with his finding that 75% of those on Mick’s first panel, away to Liechtenstein in August 1996, were Premier League players while only 35% of the current crop earn their spuds in England’s top-tier.
That’s the sort of devaluation that makes sterling’s current slide look manageable but the list of employers isn’t the only source of separation between then and now. McCarthy’s first panel boasted five players aged 21 or under. This collection has only one. The average age of the 2019 vintage is over two years higher at 27.9.
Of the 20 players in that Liechtenstein expedition, only three had spent time out on loan at that point in their careers and Shay Given was very much the exception to the rule in having spent two short stints at Swindon Town and another at Sunderland. Alan Moore and Steve Staunton were the others to have found themselves in that boat.
Now? Different story.
Sixteen of the 23 originally named in the current squad by McCarthy have experienced the curious limbo that is the loan move. David McGoldrick went though it half-a-dozen times alone. Add every short-term switch up and the figure stands at 49. Another nine transfers of any hue and this lot will have changed lockers more than the ‘96 boys with years left on their collective careers.
It’s a life where one false step can send a man plunging into the abyss.
“Not many careers are just straightforward with success,” said Matt Doherty who was twice detailed elsewhere during his earlier days with Wolves. “Most players when they’re young have to go on loan at some point in time and learn their trade. It’s just about whether your loan is successful and, if it isn’t, it’s how you come back from it.
“I didn’t have a great time when I was at Hibs but then I came back and went to Bury where Kevin Blackwell was the manager. He’s the assistant at Cardiff now. I absolutely loved it there, he was great. He gave me so much confidence. I still speak to him the odd time until this day. There have been a lot of managerial changes at Wolves but I guess I’ve just managed to be there. None of them have wanted to get rid of me. They obviously saw something that helps the club and I’m happy to be there for a long time.” Talent and hard work are prerequisites but luck and timing are arbitrary elements.
Joe Molloy on Newstalk’s ‘Off the Ball’ has argued that the route is so improbable that the top 10 Irish sportspeople every year should be professional footballers. He has a point. They have already beaten staggering odds to earn a living from the game, let alone pull on that green jersey, but it’s something most of us on the outside take for granted.
Consider Jack Byrne.
The Shamrock Rovers midfielder has come full circle in a geographic sense having left home to pursue his dreams in England at the age of 14. Still only 22, the Dubliner has already played football in four different countries through spells with Manchester City, Cambuur (in Holland), Blackburn Rovers, Wigan Athletic, Oldham Athletic, Kilmarnock and now in Tallaght.
Shelve the football for now and consider that from a human perspective. Yes, he has earned some decent money – not many 22-year old Irish lads own a house in Manchester – but think, for just a second, about the mental strength it must take at that young age to absorb all that uncertainty, rejection and disappointment and keep on keeping on.
Imagine being a 19-year old Jack Byrne pitching up in the city of Leeuwarden in the Netherlands to play for SC Cambuur. What it must have been like in this strange city for the first six weeks when he injured an ankle in pre-season and missed the first six weeks of the campaign. And that was, ultimately, a successful stint.
Byrne has joined clubs only to watch the men who signed him being turfed out weeks later. He was ostracised at Oldham despite a record of eight goals in 44 appearances. That he is on international duty this week at all displays the sort of survival skills of which Eamon Dunphy would surely approve as the qualifiers for Euro 2020 approach.
This isn’t an Irish squad blessed with the sort of talent that captured a nation’s heart in years past but they deserve the respect of their compatriots regardless of what happens in the course of this next eight months. If nothing else, they know what it is to scrap and scrape. It may not be the worst starting point for the new gaffer.
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