BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Cunningham a rarity: An upwardly mobile Irish player

Greg Cunningham.

Very few of us paid attention when Greg Cunningham’s transfer from Preston to Cardiff City went through in June.

The World Cup was starting, Joe Schmidt’s Ireland was on a three-Test tour of Australia, Rory McIlroy was about to tackle the US Open and the Munster Hurling Championship was producing a mixture of drama and genius that hasn’t been seen since the late ‘60s when The Beatles juggled a slow implosion with some of their greatest work.

Cunningham’s move is worthy of our attention now as the Premier League’s transfer deadline passes us by, the 20 teams pull up their metaphorical drawbridges and a stocktake is compiled of what it is they have at their disposal — and what they might need when the market re-opens and agents can hawk their wares again.

There’s a wider lens we’ll look through in a bit but the Galway man’s promotion is deserving of our attention first. Cunningham managed two top-tier appearances with Manchester City back at the start of the decade. Add them together and you get the grand total of two minutes played, both as late replacements for Adam Johnson.

It’s taken him eight years to return. Eight years spent mostly in the Championship with Leicester City, Nottingham Forest and Preston — where he was a fan favourite, occasional captain and 2015/16 player of the year — but also at Bristol City where he chipped away for three years in League One.

Cunningham’s career wasn’t helped by injuries either so his return to the big time is to be applauded — and welcomed. His abilities and experience at left-back at the age of 27 will surely propel him up the roster for the Republic of Ireland given the country’s dearth of options there and Stephen Ward’s advancing years.

And now to the disturbing part.

Cunningham is the one example of a senior Irish footballer who has been upwardly mobile in Premier League terms this off-season. It’s a depressing reality, even if the dwindling number, and influence, of Irish players in the ‘Greatest League in the World’ has been a dismaying trend for a long, long time.

Harry Arter did manage to squeeze out the door at Bournemouth for a year-long loan at Cardiff City before it shut at 5pm yesterday but, well, everything after that is traffic in the wrong direction.

God be with the days — two years ago — when Robbie Brady was being talked up as a target for Leicester’s reigning league champions, Shane Duffy was poised for Champions League football as part of the Brendan Rodgers revolution at Celtic and Jeff Hendrick was Sean Dyche’s ‘must have’ shiny new toy at Burnley.

As we know, only one of those courtships, if that’s what the first two ever were, ended up being consummated between the club and player in question and neither Brady nor Hendrick have been tearing up trees at Turf Moor either. In that, they are not alone when it comes to Martin O’Neill’s talent pool.

There are less than 20 Republic of Ireland-qualified footballers earning their crust in the big league now that could be considered likely material for involvement on the international stage. Of that, only Duffy, Cunningham, Declan Rice and Matt Doherty could make a convincing case for claiming their PL club career is pointing upwards.

Rice is the only Irish ‘regular’ under the age of 25, though there are some seeds of hope deeper down. Caoimhin Kelleher featured for Liverpool over the summer and Troy Parrott franked his reputation as one of the most exciting Irish talents in ages by signing a first professional contract with Tottenham.

But young lads crossing the Irish Sea with pimples on their chins is nothing new. Think back 20 years, to the 1998/99 season, and it is all too clear just how much the ability of Irish players to turn the heads of managers, and influence games, at the summit of the English game has dipped.

Roy Keane and Denis Irwin would end that campaign as treble winners with Manchester United. Gary Kelly and Ian Harte were the standard bearers for half-a-dozen Irishmen at a Leeds United side that would finish fourth in the table. Steve Staunton and Phil Babb were first-teamers at Anfield.

That’s before you consider Damien Duff at Blackburn, Richard Dunne on the books at Everton, Shay Given with Newcastle United and Stephen Carr at Tottenham. And many, many more.

Then again, as Gary Neville explains elsewhere in these pages, it’s a problem with which the four ‘home’ nations can identify all too well.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien


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