ireland slump Andy Reid outlines a key reason why there will be no quick fix to Stephen Kenny's woes
Green shoots are visible but our top young stars need to do much more
They have been hailed as the golden generation capable of dragging Ireland out of a black hole of mediocrity, yet the stairway to the big time is currently stuck in neutral for our likely lads.
As the first anniversary of Stephen Kenny's coronation as Ireland manager looms large, the wonder kids who have the potential to change the jaded image of our national team find themselves facing up to a familiar barrier that has blocked so many who have previously followed their path.
Almost two decades have passed since Shay Given, Richard Dunne, John O'Shea, Andy Reid, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane served up the last golden generation of Irish talent, with all six going on to shine in the Premier League and carry Ireland's challenge on the international stage.
Yet England's top flight has embraced a major makeover since those gifted Irishmen made their breakthroughs at the back end of the 1990s and as so many have discovered in the years since, making a mark at a top Premier League club now is harder than ever.
So while Caoimhin Kelleher, Jayson Molumby, Jason Knight, Aaron Connolly, Adam Idah and Troy Parrott still offer hope that Ireland's future can be brighter than a miserable recent past, the last 12 months have confirmed there is no quick fix to this problem.
Kelleher's success in establishing himself as Liverpool's No 2 keeper is arguably the biggest success story for Irish soccer in the last year, even though he is unlikely to play too many first team games if he stays at Anfield.
Meanwhile, Molumby failed to make a breakthrough at Brighton this season and was forced to dip down a league and battle for a first team spot with Preston, with Knight also part of the story at the lower end of the Championship with Derby.
Connolly openly admitted in an exclusive interview with the Sunday World last October that he has struggled with his confidence as he has failed to prove his worth at the highest level at Brighton.
Meanwhile, Dubliner Parrott has been forced to drop down to the third tier of English football in a loan spell with Ipswich after his initial temporary move from Spurs to Millwall failed to reap rewards and Idah is battling to prove his worth at Norwich.
It's hardly a story of breakthrough wonder kids ready to set the international stage alight and while all six are young enough to overcome their challenges, a voice of experience will confirm the challenge to succeed at the top of the game now is tougher than ever.
"When I first went over to England with Nottingham Forest, it was generally a lot of British and Irish lads in the English teams," recalls Reid, who enjoyed a career that also included spells with Tottenham, Charlton and Sunderland.
"The environment was very different, but the big money coming into the Premier League opened so many more doors and now the lads coming through for Ireland are competing against the best players in the world.
"I am convinced we have a great crop of talent coming through in Ireland at the moment, but it's hard to make that step up now and we have to see if these lads can do it without putting too much pressure on them.
"Look at Troy Parrott. He has fantastic potential, but it will be tough for him to get into the Tottenham team and he might need to drop down a league to get regular football and develop.
"In the past, a lad like that might come over from Ireland and if he was good enough, he would get a chance to play. Now things have changed and the competition at the top level is intense."
Ireland international Jack Byrne offered up a similar story as he reflected on his aborted attempt to hit the big time in English football with Manchester City, as he suggested the step up in class came as something of a shock.
"When I went to Man City, there was a lot of talk about me being one of the best players in the country, but you are going in with the best players in the world at a club like that," said the former Shamrock Rovers star, who moved to England to join City when he was just 15.
"What you realise when you go to England is the levels required to make a success of your career over there are so much higher than we are used to in Ireland."
Connolly has got closer to a Premier League breakthrough than most Irish youngsters in recent years, but he has scored just three Premier League goals since his breakthrough against Spurs in October 2019 and admits he has struggled to deal with his own expectations.
"You have to do so much to succeed in the Premier League and I realised that in the year since that day against Spurs," said Connolly.
"It was difficult when I didn't score for all that time. I've never had to deal with anything like that in my whole life before. In the youth teams I played in, there was never a time when I didn't score, but it's a totally different level in England."
Meanwhile, Kenny is waiting on news about the wellbeing of Conor Hourihane after the midfielder limped off in the first half of Swansea's derby game with Cardiff City last night.
And Callum O'Dowda's prospects of making the trip to Serbia also look remote after he left the pitch in tears after sustaining an injury in Bristol City's reverse against Rotherham, with the winger only just having returned from a lengthy absence.
Hourihane was expected to be a big part of Kenny's plans for Wednesday's clash in Belgrade.
But the on-loan Aston Villa midfielder only lasted 18 minutes of the Championship encounter, a development which casts serious doubt on his prospects of travelling.
The lack of options available to Kenny means he may need to turn to some of his young guns as he looks to end a miserable run of form that includes a goal drought stretching over seven games and 11 hours of football against a talented Serbia side on Wednesday night.
The pandemic has handicapped Kenny's ambitions, but no manager can expect a free pass if his vision serves up a team that cannot find a way to score goals.
Anything less than a swift revival in fortunes for Ireland over the next week may cement the suspicion that Kenny's ambitions cannot be realised with a group of players not yet ready to relight the Irish fire that was doused long before he arrived as manager.
IRELAND'S WORLD CUP FIXTURES
Serbia (a) March 24th
Luxembourg (h) - March 27th
Portugal (a) - September 1st
Azerbaijan (h) - September 4th
Serbia (h) - September 7th
Azerbaijan (a) - October 9th
Portugal (h) - November 11th
Luxembourg (a) - November 14th
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