One point constantly up for debate among League of Ireland fans is whether or not the best option for young Irish players is to sign for a club in England or stay and learn the ropes in the League of Ireland.
Of course the opportunity to sign as an apprentice for a club in the top tiers of English football is tough to turn down, however, in recent times we’ve seen more players beginning their careers in the League of Ireland go on to have great success across the water.
A large proportion of the players who take the plunge and sign for an English club at 15 or 16 end up coming home again after being released a few years after they sign. It’s not necessarily because they are not good enough. One important reason is that it’s very tough for a teenager to uproot and move to a different country, some players will be mentally tough enough for the challenge but many will not. However, they may develop that mental toughness over time.
Take, for example, St. Patrick’s Athletic midfielder Keith Fahey. Fahey signed for Arsenal as a teenager and then went on to have a spell with Aston Villa before being released and moving back to Dublin. On his return to Dublin he began playing Leinster Senior League for Bluebell United shortly before beginning his first stint with Pat’s. Fahey went on to spend six seasons in the League of Ireland between Pat’s and a short time with Drogheda United.
The important thing about Fahey’s time playing in Ireland is that he was able to restart his career and prove himself as a footballer. His impressive performances for Pat’s led to a contract with Birmingham City in 2008. During his second stint in England, Fahey played in the Premier League, was capped several times for the Republic of Ireland and only missed out on travelling to the 2012 European Championships because of injury.
It is very clear that Fahey always had the potential to make it to that level. The fact of the matter is that going to England as a young player obviously did not suit him.
Even looking beyond Keith Fahey, to the likes of Irish internationals Seamus Coleman, Kevin Doyle and Shane Long. These three players didn’t obtain apprenticeships with any English clubs. They all began their careers in the League of Ireland, Coleman with Sligo Rovers and both Doyle and Long with Cork City. Coleman is one of the great success stories of Irish football and is considered to be one of the best defenders in the Premier League. Doyle and Long have also had great careers across the water in their own right and have featured for the Republic of Ireland on many occasions. This isn’t an isolated trend there are numerous players who started their careers the same way these players did, Roy Keane playing for Cobh Ramblers comes to mind.
What about the young crop of talent in the League of Ireland at the moment? Galway’s Ryan Manning is one of the most exciting young players in the league. By the end of this season Manning will have two seasons of first team football under his belt. Manning could go down a similar footballing path to, former Derry City winger, James McClean. Shortly after transferring to Sunderland in the Premier League McClean broke into the first team there. This was after only spending time in the Irish League and League of Ireland. Although many would argue that a player is better off playing full-time football like the young players in England and that the standard in Ireland is just too poor for a player to develop, there is a case to be made for players like Manning, McClean and others already experiencing first team football before they join teams abroad.
Of course, the argument could be made that it all depends on the player. Many other players have gone to England as teenagers and succeeded. It is clear, however, that the League of Ireland is definitely not the worst place for a young player to start their career.