Last month Martin O’Neill discussed the League of Ireland on the podcast ‘Greatest League in the World’ with broadcaster Con Murphy and Conan Byrne of St Patrick’s Athletic.
When asked about the pattern that has developed over the past 10 to 15 years of League of Ireland players being very swiftly selected for the Irish squad on the back of a transfer to the UK — a journey known in domestic football circles as ‘the magic plane’ — O’Neill raised the argument of the higher standard in the Championship in England as against that which prevails in the Premier Division of the League of Ireland.
Given the vastly superior wages and attendances, together with the proliferation of international players from around the world, in England’s second tier, O’Neill certainly has grounds for assuming that, in general, a player from the Championship will be better prepared for international football than his equivalent playing in the League of Ireland.
But, to his credit, the manager also accepted there are arguments against this assumption and made a point of referring to the high standard of players in the League of Ireland at this moment in time.
He also discussed how his own playing career in the UK owed much to his early spell in the Irish League in the North, much as his assistant Roy Keane often speaks of the important role Cobh Ramblers played in his own development.
Con Murphy then raised the obvious example of former Cork City striker Seanie Maguire who, despite being the stand-out player in the League of Ireland for more than a year, was not deemed worthy of a call-up by O’Neill until, within just a few months of signing for Preston, he was not only in the Irish squad but actually making his debut in a World Cup qualifier.
By way of explanation for why he did not select Maguire during his time in the League of Ireland, O’Neill stated that “he didn’t play well when I watched him,” or at least not until the manager was in Oriel Park to see the striker claim a hat-trick against Dundalk when City beat the reigning champions 3-0 last season.
Yet, the fact Maguire had to wait for his move to the Championship before making his
international breakthrough doesn’t allay the suspicion that what had really stood against him before that was less to do with his own level of performance than the fact he was simply playing in this country.
In keeping with the argument a player might need to be tested at a higher level — to the extent, indeed, that it appears to be almost a pre-requisite for international recognition — O’Neill pointed out he had already selected Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle for the Irish squad (albeit without either actually featuring on the pitch) after they had performed in European competition while still at Dundalk.
In essence, O’Neill’s is a very similar approach to that adopted by most Irish managers since Jack Charlton, a man who was only ever interested in one thing — as his one-time nemesis Eamon Dunphy might say, “results baby”.
Mick McCarthy was no different and Brian Kerr, for all his history in Irish club football, didn’t change matters to any noticeable extent. Steve Staunton’s short era included the capping of a few locally-based players, with Cork City’s Joe Gamble in 2007 being the last to play for his country while still at a League of Ireland club.
Next up was Giovanni Trapattoni who, when reflecting on his own performance as Ireland manager, once observed: “In a nation that doesn’t have its own football league, I think I did a good job.”
What is particularly frustrating is that this status quo takes no account of a very significant change in the landscape of Irish football since the Charlton era, and that is the hugely increased number of players who have graduated from the League of Ireland to make careers for themselves in the UK and further afield.
To give just one illustration, since the turn of the millennium, a total of 10 ex-Cork City players have been capped for the senior Irish team: Damien Delaney, Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Alan Bennett, David Meyler, Kevin Long, Daryl Horgan, Seanie Maguire, Alan Browne, and the aforementioned Joe Gamble.
By contrast, when speaking with former City captain Declan Daly recently, he told me that from his time as a player — roughly spanning the years from 1985 to 2003 — he could count on the fingers of one hand the number of players who went on from the club to make careers for themselves in the UK.
Indeed, from my own time playing with City through to the present day, there have been many more former players who, though they never gained international caps, have gone on to play in England and elsewhere — the likes of Roy O’Donovan, Leon McSweeney, John O’Flynn, George O’Callaghan, Denis Behan, David Mooney, Graham Cummins, Danny Murphy, Gearóid Morrissey, Brian Lenihan, and Chiedozie Ogbene among others.
In short, there has been a near five-fold increase in the number of Cork City players going on to play outside the League of Ireland since Declan Daly’s time, a trend which, of course, has not been confined to just this club.
And it’s a phenomenon also reflected in the significantly enhanced presence of League of Ireland graduates in recent and current Irish squads.
The key question which therefore arises is whether there should be an alteration in the selection policy of the Irish national team manager to much more immediately reflect this changing dynamic in the League of Ireland.
Or to put it another way: Is it time the range of factors involved in selecting players for our national team should include consideration of the good of the game here?
Martin O’Neill’s primary mandate might be the same as that of his predecessors — to qualify for international competitions — but surely there’s an onus on the FAI to ensure the senior manager’s role encompasses the duty of improving Irish football as a whole.
We don’t need to look very far for an example of a national manager with a wider mandate than O’Neill’s.
Irish rugby’s recent successes have not been built on a policy of results at all costs.
When Simon Zebo recently decided to play in France it seems he reduced his chances of playing for Ireland. If Joe Schmidt’s mandate was based solely around results then he would have been upset with the loss of such a talented player.
But it quickly became clear there was something else in the coach’s mind, a consideration which took precedence.
Asked to clarify the IRFU position on overseas-based players, Schmidt was quoted as saying: “There is no policy, there is only an intention from the IRFU to best protect the provinces and the local game. We believe the best way to do that is to select from within Ireland”
Is it not time for the FAI to take a step in the same direction? To be fair, they have recently made progress towards developing an elite pathway in Ireland with the creation of the underage League of Ireland leagues.
My argument is a shift in national team selection towards favouring players playing in this jurisdiction would dovetail perfectly with that admirable policy.
And don’t be put off by the inevitable argument that this will bring us back to the worst days of Irish football, when the national team was selected by committees and part-time League of Ireland players were frequently involved in heavy losses. This is not what I’m proposing here.
The best available players, wherever they play their football, should at all times be selected for Ireland. What should change, in my opinion, is that when it comes to a 50/50 selection decision, the League of Ireland player should get the benefit of the doubt.
There can be no denying that outstanding individual talent was, and is, on display in our domestic game. So imagine the benefit for both the League and the national team, if the Irish manager would select the next Sean Maguire or Kevin Doyle while they were still destroying defences at Turner’s Cross.
Or the next Wes Hoolahan while working his magic at Shelbourne. Or the next Keith Fahey while showing his class at Richmond Park.
Associations all around Europe use their national side as a means to assist and improve their domestic leagues and clubs. The IRFU does so too.
Why can’t the FAI follow suit and adapt the mandate of our national manager to take advantage of those occasions when an exceptional player like a McGuire, Doyle or Hoolahan comes along?
The benefits would not just be confined to the pitch. A player’s status as a full international would doubtless greatly enhance any future transfer his Irish club might achieve and that too would help further improve the overall standard of our national league.
Instead, we’re stuck with this strange transformation in an already talented player’s ability and status which seems to take hold somewhere between take off and landing.
The magic plane doesn’t just carry off our best players — it also takes away the reward and recognition which our league deserves.