State of the Nation: Irish representation in this season’s Premier League

It might feel like the football season just ended, but the start of a new one is rapidly approaching with little over two weeks to go until Crystal Palace and Arsenal kick off the 2022-23 Premier League season at Selhurst Park on the Friday Night Football special.

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With that in mind, and with Irish sport currently riding the crest of a wave, what is the State of the Nation when it comes to Premier League representation? And what are playing numbers likely to be over the course of the campaign?

Let’s start with the best and brightest talents in Irish football, Nathan Collins and Gavin Bazunu. Both have made big-money moves, to Wolves and Southampton respectively, continuing their rapid ascent in the last 12 months to become cornerstones of Stephen Kenny’s revolution.

In the process of making a £20.5 million move from relegated Burnley, Collins is now the most expensive Irish footballer of all time, overtaking Robbie Keane’s transfer to Liverpool in 2008. This follows on from the young centre-back’s £12 million switch to Turf Moor from Stoke City just last summer, putting him second only to Robbie in the overall transfer cost standings. Inflation, market value changes et al. to be considered.

A year younger than Collins at 20, Bazunu could become the youngest starting goalkeeper in the top-flight if he can overtake Alex McCarthy as the no.1 for Ralph Hasenhüttl’s men. One would suspect that will happen quickly given the transfer fee involved – £12 million up front, with a potential £4 million in add-ons. Not the type of fee a midtable side usually spends on a back-up.

Neither should have any problem settling into their new sides, despite Bazunu joining from Manchester City via League One. He spent last season on the south coast (on loan at Saints’ rivals Portsmouth), and Collins adapted quickly once he fully broke into the Burnley side. Albeit he may need a few Portuguese sessions on Duolingo, given the make-up of the squad at Molineux.

Accompanying the new kids on the block is the aul reliable – Seamus Coleman. Arguably the sole Irish stand-out in the Premier League in the last decade (backed up by his selection for the 2013/14 PFA Team of the Season), the Everton captain should continue to be a key part of everything at Goodison Park; Frank Lampard’s high praise following survival last season being a clear indication of this.

Two of Stephen Kenny’s other first-choice defenders face more uncertain futures on the other hand. Shane Duffy has openly talked about possibly moving on from Brighton this summer for first-team football, having regained (following a torrid loan spell with Celtic) and then lost his starting spot with the Seagulls over the course of last season. Whether any transfer would keep the Derryman in the Premier League is very much in question.

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Matt Doherty, in a reversal of Duffy’s fortunes, finally made his way into Antonio Conte’s plans at Tottenham in the second half of the season after being left in the cold for much of the Italian’s opening months in charge. Slotting in at right-wing back in Conte’s now-staple 3-5-2 formation, the former Wolves man was just beginning to become a fixture in the side before a knee injury in April ended his season prematurely. Now fit-again and partaking in a full pre-season, he faces a serious battle with new signing Djed Spence to retain that spot.

Identifying Irish elsewhere, and it’s a case of keepers, keepers and more keepers – just our luck, and akin to full-backs in the ‘90s and ‘00s. Caoimhin Kelleher’s stock considerably rose last season with his Carabao Cup exploits and a few composed performances in the league. This season is likely to be make-or-break, however. A move away from Anfield at some point will probably be needed if he’s to challenge Bazunu for the no.1 spot with the national team. A promoted club would seem a good option, but Bournemouth already have an Irishman in nets, Mark Travers. A near-ever present in the Cherries’ promotion season, he’s been rewarded with a new long-term deal this summer, suggesting he’ll be a key part of their return to the top-flight.

Former Ireland no.1 Darren Randolph is still at West Ham, although he didn’t play a single league game last season and looks set to be third choice this season. A transfer would almost certainly return him to the Championship – likely with a view to staying in London given he’s just had his first child with Alexandra Burke. The lower leagues’ most famous WAG incoming?

It may be a case of out with the old and in with the new in London, with Under-19s keeper Josh Keeley moving to Spurs from St. Patrick’s Athletics this month. He’s highly unlikely to feature in a first-team squad anytime soon however.

The League of Ireland has been a source of talent spotting for Crystal Palace too, with Jake O’Brien and Killian Phillips arriving from Cork City and Drogheda United respectively in the last year. Both have been a part of the Eagles’ pre-season tour, alongside another Irishman in the form of Tayo Adaramola. The three Under-21 Internationals have benefited from the low full vaccination figures in the Palace squad, which has prevented many first-team players from travelling to South-East Asia. Phillips started in centre midfield in last week’s 2-0 loss to Liverpool, while defenders O’Brien and Phillips came off the bench. The remainder of the tour will probably decide whether they’re a part of Patrick Vieira’s plans this season or sent out on Championship loans for further development.

The loan system is one likely to be utilised for several other young Irish players in the league. Troy Parrott may be impressing in Conte’s brutal fitness sessions, but he finds himself even further down the pecking order with the signing of Richarlison. Parrott’s team mate at MK Dons last season, Conor Coventry (record appearance holder for the Under-21s), might face a similar fate again, particularly as West Ham’s midfield is the strong point of their side. Mipo Odubeko’s career at the London Stadium looks to be coming to a close, and the final year of his contract will be spent elsewhere. Will Ferry is yet to make a first-team appearance at Southampton and spent last season at Crawley Town.

Will Smallbone may join his namesake in departing the south coast but expect him to at least start the season at St. Mary’s. Conor Ronan is being given a chance by Bruno Lage in Wolves’ pre-season but it’s probable that he finally exits on a permanent move after four consecutive seasons spent out on loan. A return to Scotland, where he impressed last season with St. Mirren, is rumoured.

Two players already sent out on loan are Gavin Kilkenny, at Stoke from Bournemouth, and Aaron Connolly, heading to Venezia from Brighton. Once touted as a future star, Connolly’s career has unravelled in recent times and a stint in Serie B needs to act as a wake-up call. Evan Ferguson, just 17 but a Premier League debutant last season, could replace Connolly in the ranks, but any first-team appearances are anticipated to be limited to the cups as his development is managed.

Ollie O’Neill is another Irish forward who’ll hope to make his mark this season, having signed a new deal with Fulham this summer. The 19-year-old winger had attracted attention from West Ham and Spurs.

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So where does that leave Ireland in terms of numbers for the new season? Four likely starters: Bazunu, Travers, Collins and Coleman. Two likely squad players: Doherty and Duffy. Miscellaneous: the rest.

In all likelihood it will be the lowest number of Irish players in a season in Premier League history, breaking last season’s tally of 14, which itself was a massive drop from even five years ago. There are a multitude of reasons for this, primarily the fall in quality of Irish football in recent years as a result of the FAI’s mass incompetence, as well as globalisation meaning competition is fiercer than ever.

Away from these consistent issues, the relegation of several sides who regularly had a shade of green in their playing squads has diminished numbers. We’re talking Burnley, Norwich, Sheffield United and West Bromwich Albion – see Josh Cullen following Vincent Kompany from Anderlecht to Burnley for further proof of this Anglo-Irish connection. Adam Idah and Andrew Omobamidele will join the likes of Callum Robinson, John Egan, Enda Stephens and others in the Championship.

Other players have been forced to follow ex-star boy Robbie Brady as their careers move in a downward direction, notably Shane Long returning to Reading (another Irish outpost) alongside Jeff Hendrick. Ciaran Clark joins Hendrick in leaving Newcastle, with the defender heading to Sheffield United. Any of these sides’ return to the top-flight would lead to a quick boost in Premier League playing numbers.

The newly promoted sides are a reasonable bet for a mid-season Irish pick up. Should Michael Obafemi continue his form at Swansea, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him move in the January transfer window.

As the new season approaches, a juxtaposition of Irish football and its current fortunes is shown. Two of the country’s best talents in recent years make big-time moves and look to be destined for even greater heights as overall Premier League production is at an all-time low. Solving this issue, and surrounding Collins and Bazunu with other quality top-flight players either in England or elsewhere, is an absolute must if Stephen Kenny’s rebuild and revolution is to make significant progress in the coming years.

The Author

Peter Fitzpatrick

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