Ireland's travelling fans urged to back the domestic game
IRELAND’s green army of fans has been urged to repay our home-grown Euro 2016 heroes – by throwing a lifeline to the league that shaped them.
Half of the 14 players who starred in the historic victory over Italy cut their teeth in the League of Ireland.
Unlike previous Irish teams that were filled with ‘granny rule’ ex-pats and youngsters who were snapped up as schoolboys by English clubs,the backbone of Martin O’Neill’s team was forged in the league of Ireland .
Wes Hoolahan (Shelbourne), Seamus Coleman (Sligo), Stephen Ward (Bohs) James McClean (Derry) and Daryl Murphy (Waterford) cut their teeth there. Other players had shorter stints at Irish clubs, including Shane Long and David Meyler (Cork) City and Stephen Quinn (St Pats).
Now those who love the local game want fans – and football chiefs – to bring the Euro 2016 football hysteria home.
St Pat’s manager Liam Buckley said: “If everyone realised we do have a professional league in the country and if it was supported more, we’d have more than seven into the international team.
“If we can translate the passion for our national team into our league it would have a huge effect. People can make a difference just by coming to the games.
“There is some top talent coming through and this will inspire the next generation. Irish soccer needed it at this point in time. Kids want to be the next Robbie Brady now.”
Ireland striker and Sunday World pundit Kevin Doyle was an instant success in the U.K. after scoring 19 goals in his first season with Reading, who signed him from Cork City.
His success led to a lot of English clubs seeking out talent in the LOI, including his former team-mate Shane Long. He said he hopes today’s stars will encourage more clubs to look to the League of Ireland.
“Irish players are underrated. We have a reputation for being hard working, passionate, but maybe lacking in quality a little, but I think that is misguided.
“We have footballers in our current squad who have more talent than they are given credit for.
“I have played with lads like Wes Hoolahan, Stephen Ward and Shane Long and they have made the step up from League of Ireland to enjoy long careers in the English game.
“It is more difficult than ever for Irish players to get into the top English clubs, but hopefully nights like last Wednesday will remind clubs that there are some top players in Ireland.”
Shamrock Rovers boss Pat Fenlon, who managed Wes Hoolahan at Shelbourne, said the fact so many of our Euro 2016 stars learned theirtrade here stands to them in terms of maturity and experience.
“Look at the likes of Coleman, Hoolahan, McClean. They had plenty of experience in the League of Ireland. They played in Europe and it stands to them.
“Even from a maturity point of view they’re going away in their 20s and they’re men at that stage rather than going away at 16 or 17. They’re finishing school, they’re not getting that loads of money as a teenager. Our lads are very well grounded.”
However, he said League of Ireland teams are cash-strapped and are losing young players to lower divisions in England as a result. The league’s ranking dropped from 29th in 2010 to 41st this year.
“There’s no doubt a lot more should be done and can be done,” Pat said.
“A lot of the clubs are struggling at the moment. The big issue is finance.”
The champions of this year’s Airtricity Premier League will receive just €110,000 in prize money.
By comparison, FAI boss John Delaney earns €360,000 a year.
But as well as FAI investment, supporters need to attend matches.
Dundalk captain Stephen O’Donnell went to Arsenal as a youth player before a two-season stint with Falkirk in Scotland. He’s played for several League of Ireland teams since returning home in 2007 when he joined Bohs.
He said having seven former LOI players playing against Italy was a great return for the league.
“There’s always been talent in the league. There are players who still play in the league who could go on to be future Ireland internationals.
“We need to get a positive attitude for the league. At the moment there’s a negative mindset. We could turn around and see it as a great breeding ground for our future stars.”