The fall and rise of the Boys in Green

John Fallon looks back on Irish soccer’s 2017

The fall and rise of the Boys in Green

FIVE WHO ENJOYED 2017

Sean Maguire: Built upon a strong previous year with an outstanding 12 months. His 20 goals were the bedrock for Cork City’s title victory and he hit the ground running upon joining Preston North End in July for the start of the English Championship season. Capped it all in October with a senior Ireland debut.

Shane Duffy: His elevation to status of Ireland mainstay has, for various reasons, taken longer than anticipated but Duffy ends the year with his reputation enhanced following progress for club and country. The rough diamond had become a polished gem by the time he clinched promotion to the Premier League with Brighton.

Declan Rice: With a paucity of ready-made talent available to Martin O’Neill, Rice came along in June to offer part of the solution. He’s still to make his full debut, yet six appearances in the Premier League for West Ham United should ensure the Londoner is plucked, temporarily at least, from the U21s for the friendly against Turkey on March 23.

James McClean: The controversial winner of RTÉ’s Sportsperson of the Year award, as voted by the public, certainly had a positive influence on the Ireland team. Not only was his goal in Cardiff the highpoint for Irish football but he blossomed into a leader both on and off the pitch.

Kevin Long: While Irish fans bemoan the standard some of the senior and U21 players operate at, Long is an exception. His appearance for Ireland against Austria in June was his first for the country at any level. This despite the 27-year-old having played in the Premier League for Burnley.

FIVE WHO ENDURED A DIFFICULT YEAR

Shane Long: Zero goals for his country was damning enough but Long’s misfiring extends to his club form. Although he’s deployed mainly from the bench, a lack of goals during those cameos made 2017 a year with a difference for the Tipp native. Martin O’Neill clearly has doubts too.

Damien Delaney: The case for the Corkman being recalled to the Ireland squad withered as his role as a Crystal Palace regular disintegrated. A change of manager didn’t even trigger an improved picture for the centre-back and his long spell at the club is nearing an end.

Darragh Lenihan: The tough-tackling centre-back, like his namesake Brian at Hull, had been marked out as senior international material when captain of Ireland’s U21s. He should still make that step but, between uncertainty over his future at relegated Blackburn Rovers and injuries, 2017 proved a year of setbacks.

Robbie Brady: Began the year with a €12m move to Burnley and a cracking goal against champions-elect Chelsea only to see his form dip for club and country. When the pressure came to deliver in the World Cup play-off, Brady underwhelmed. A serious knee injury earlier this month compounded a year to forget.

Darron Gibson: Joining doomed Sunderland in January could have been a good long-term bet but a drunken rant, recorded on a camera phone, said much for the toxic environment Gibson entered. On the pitch, the midfielder still looks a shadow of the player he once was.

FIVE WHO NEED A MOVE

Richie Towell: Two years ago, the midfielder left Dundalk for Brighton as the country’s great hope. Transitioning is easier for some than others and, while injuries haven’t helped, League One and Rotherham on loan is not where the midfielder wanted to be. Towell may have to cut his ties with Chris Hughton to thrive elsewhere.

Harry Arter: Despite the pair being a good fit in their ascent to the Premier League, it seems the relationship between Bournemouth and Arter has gone stale.

In and out of the starting team, the midfielder needs a fresh challenge and West Ham United – where his brother-in-law Scott Parker shone – could provide the ideal habitat.

Stephen Ireland: At the age of 31, Ireland’s best days were all too fleeting and he’s likely to have just one last hurrah following his return from a broken leg.

That’s a long shot at Stoke City, where his loyal boss Mark Hughes is under threat. A run in the Championship shouldn’t be sniffed at by the Corkman.

Reece Grego-Cox: The QPR striker became the first player during Noel King’s seven-year reign as U21 boss to hit a hat-trick when his trio helped torpedo Israel 4-0 in October’s Euro qualifier. Replicating the joy with his club is the problem as Ian Holloway has frozen the youngster out and a move is imminent.

Tommie Hoban: The former Ireland U21 captain is nursing the latest of his injuries, yet can’t be too confident of forcing his way back in at Watford given the chopping and changing of managers in recent years.

Still only 23, Hoban has time on his side to revive his career.

FIVE WHO CAN HAVE A BIG 2018

Kieran O’Hara: Like most in the goalkeeping club, O’Hara doesn’t lack confidence and he’s backed that up by assuming the first-choice spot for Ireland’s U21s and earning a two-year extension on his Manchester United contract. Sees himself challenging for the United berth in the future, gaining inclusion in this season’s Champions League squad, but a loan switch is the immediate plan.

Aidan Keena: It might have gone under the radar but the Mullingar teenager, recruited from St Patrick’s Athletic, made his SPL debut up front for Hearts last month. Experienced boss Craig Levein clearly rates the import and has kept him in and around the first-team since.

Jack Byrne: The chirpy Dubliner arrived on the scene with a bang in 2016, declaring himself on a par with the senior Ireland colleagues he trained with before the Euro finals. In spite of leaving Manchester City shortly afterwards for Wigan and being dropped from the Ireland U21 squad, Byrne found solace in recent months on loan at Oldham Athletic.

Anthony Stokes: By no means a spring chicken, there’s been several false dawns for the gifted striker and this year will surely be his last chance. Back in the groove at former club Hibs, the 29-year-old is deserving of an Ireland recall for the friendlies over the next six months and needs to make his presence felt.

Jayson Molumby: The star turn of a talented Ireland U19 side battling for a first Euro finals appearance in seven years is a senior international in waiting, according to his Brighton teammate Shane Duffy. Hailing from Waterford, his prowess for dribbling and grabbing goals from distance add substance to the hype.

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