As domestic football improves in Ireland, players are earning professional contracts later in their careers, says Ciaran McCauley
James McClean is one of the finds of the season, a £350,000 steal for Sunderland from Derry City. Depending on what you read, he is now worth anywhere between £10 million and £200m and could yet be on his way to Euro 2012 after winning his first cap in February's friendly against Czech Republic.
The media have been quick to romanticise McClean's remarkable ascendance. But any follower of the League of Ireland (LOI) will be very familiar with his exploits in the last couple of years, after 70 games and 18 goals for Derry City made him one of the league's standout players. It is bizarre to be told that McClean emerged from "nowhere", when the LOI has become a wholesale exporter of quality players to the top divisions in the last few years.
Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Seamus Coleman, Keith Fahey, Stephen Ward and Wes Hoolahan are just some of the players who have made an impact in the Premier League in recent years. Derry City alone have been a stepping stone for Paddy McCourt, Niall McGinn (both Celtic and Northern Ireland), David Forde (Millwall and Republic of Ireland), Connor Sammon (Wigan) and, most recently, left-back Danny Lafferty, who joined Burnley for around £150,000 in January.
Derry City manager Declan Devine has coached all of the club's exports during his long stints as the club's coach and assistant manager. He attributes their success to the league's increased professionalism. Clubs have found a healthy balance between having part-time staff and a full-time work ethos: "The standard of training and competition is very high in the league and doesn't get the credit it deserves. The standard of coaching is also a hell of a lot better. Essentially, what they get in England, they do here on a lesser scale. Players in Ireland are now more professional and have better discipline."
Greater professionalism does not offer a full explanation for the rise in exports. For years Irish players had one route to success in the English top-flight: secure a move as a youth player, cross their fingers and hope it works out. If players failed, a return home signalled the end of any grand ambitions. Only superlative talents, such as Paul McGrath and Roy Keane, made an impact after signing from Irish clubs.
Fahey's career is an example of how things have changed. Released by Aston Villa in 2003, he spent six seasons in the LOI before securing a move to Birmingham City. He is now a mainstay of Giovanni Trapattoni's international squad. Likewise, Lafferty spent four years at Celtic only to arrive at Derry in 2010. He was rewarded with a move back across the channel after two good seasons in Ireland.
"A lot of young players come back to Ireland having been let go from a club and have no confidence," says Devine. "But Danny Lafferty worked hard, had the right attitude and now has got a chance with Burnley. It goes to show there is no reason why a player can't go back." Players are starting to recognise the pattern too. When recent Derry City signing Brian McGroary was released by Wolves, the winger said he chose the club with a view to impressing scouts and securing a move back to England.
"The question has to be asked – is it better to go away at a young age? There's a chance you can become disillusioned. You're treated as just a number when you move over as a youth. But James developed here. When Sunderland bought him, they treated him like an asset because they invested in him."
Derry's conveyor belt of talent means Devine risks losing players at crucial stages of the season, but he insists it is a fair price for the club's financial stability. He also hopes the exported players deliver a welcome boost to the profile of both the club and the league. "At the moment players see the League of Ireland as a tremendous place to play football and, at Derry, I have no doubt we have a few young players coming through who can make it at a high level in England or Scotland. They are gifted and hungry after seeing what James and Danny have done. That's good for the club. These players know they have to play well, because very few scouts will come see a team at the bottom of the league."
From WSC 303 May 2012