Irish Toffees to savour

Alan Hansen suggested this week that tonight’s Merseyside derby at Anfield is the biggest in the league in almost 30 years.

Irish Toffees to savour

Not since 1986, he went on, when Liverpool and Everton were contesting first the title and then the FA Cup – with the Reds eventually coming out on top in both – has a clash of the old rivals from across Stanley Park carried such significance.

You probably wouldn’t find many who would disagree although I expect there’d be more than a few greybeards still inclined to bemoan the changed face of a game which means that the race for a fourth place finish now warrants almost the same amount of feverish anticipation as ye olde championship six-pointer.

Of course Liverpool won’t be writing off their title aspirations just yet – nor indeed will Everton, who are just one point behind their city rivals and nine behind the leaders going into tonight’s game.

But given that the realisation of that shared Merseyside dream would require a dramatic multi-storey collapse on the part of all three of the current pacesetters in the Premier League – Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea – then it is clearly more realistic to set the stakes for tonight’s game no higher than the battle for Champions League qualification.

Which is high enough, agreed, and especially for Everton who, even while Liverpool have been forced to endure a protracted barren spell on the domestic title front, have continued to see their old rivals recruit the big names and make the odd tidal wave in Europe to help maintain their pre-eminence as Merseyside’s most recognisable global football brand. But if, in keeping with their mass appeal around the world, the red shirt continues to enjoy the lion’s share of the backing this side of the Irish Sea, it’s to the blue of Merseyside that supporters of our national team now look for reasons to be cheerful.

When Ireland were enjoying unprecedented success under Jack Charlton, Liverpool provided the steady stream of household names, among them Lawrenson, Whelan, Houghton, Aldridge, Staunton, Babb and McAteer. Steve Finnan kept the green flag flying for the miracle of Istanbul in 2005 but Robbie Keane, three years later, was the last Irish international of note to wear the red – and that was an experience which will hardly be remembered fondly by the Dubliner.

Over the same span of years, Everton lagged behind in supplying the Irish team, though the Kevins — Sheedy and Kilbane — along with the likes of Terry Phelan, Richard Dunne and Lee Carsley, all made significant contributions as Irish Toffees. But in 2014 it’s definitely Goodison not Anfield which firmly commands the attention of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, with Aiden McGeady’s recent arrival from Moscow reinforcing the existing Irish core of Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy, Darron Gibson and Shane Duffy (the latter currently on loan at Yeovil).

The pity about tonight’s game at Anfield from an Irish perspective is that Coleman and Gibson are ruled out by, respectively, short and long-term injuries but, between now and the summer of 2016, their progress and well-being at Goodison will surely have a major bearing on Ireland’s chances of reaching the Euro Finals in France.

About Coleman, there can be little doubt that he is set to become one of the Irish greats – the only area of uncertainty one suspects is whether Everton will be able to fend off the tempting offers that are bound to start coming their way for the most exciting Irish player to have broken through at the top level in years.

David Moyes, in one of his last acts as Everton manager, wisely tied the Donegal man to a long-term contract at the club, while Moyes’ successor, Roberto Martinez, has wasted no time in saying he is ready to reward Coleman with improved terms on the back of a season which has seen him add quality goals to an already formidable ability to turn defence into attack.

In theory at least, McCarthy and Gibson could end up forming the heart of the Irish midfield which will try to help O’Neill’s team plot a course for France, assuming both players continue to mature – and, ideally, develop leadership ability — under the impressive guidance of Martinez.

McCarthy will again be watched closely tonight to see if he is ready to fully impose himself on the biggest of games but, though McGeady is more likely to see action off the bench, it’s fair to say most Irish interest will be focused on Everton’s latest boy in green, should he get another chance to show his wares after getting in 90 minutes in the FA Cup win over Stevenage.

Irish supporters know from bittersweet experience that there are few players capable of excitingly raising expectations only to crudely dash them like McGeady. His intrinsic flair as a winger has never been in question, but for every time he has brought the fans to their feet with some trickery on the flank, there have been far too many occasions when his final cross or attempt on goal has had the same fans holding their heads.

For a player, like McGeady, who operates to a large degree on instinct, the hope must be that the combined weight of the faith shown in him by O’ Neill and Martinez breeds the confidence he needs to bring a winning consistency to his performances.

Because the same can surely be said of McGeady as of the other Irish Toffees: What will be good for club will definitely be good for country.

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