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Comment & Analysis | Sport

Irish talent not attractive to Europe’s soccer elite

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Martin O’Neill has no players in any of England’s so-called ‘Big-Six’ clubs

THE BBC carried out a survey two weeks ago which, on the surface, gave Martin O’Neill plenty to be cheerful about.

After delving through the squad lists of all the players in the Premier League and Championship, it discovered that after England, France and Spain, Ireland was the next highest contributor to the payrolls of the 42 clubs in question.

A time to rejoice? You’d be forgiven for saying yes, for saying here was the most hyped and best-paid league in the world and here was proof that the cream of our talent was good enough to earn a corn there.

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You’d use the examples of the countries up ahead and point out, firstly, that it is England’s national league, so thereby it should win the population count.

Secondly, that France is as close a neighbour to England as Ireland and therefore an easy avenue for scouts to network the best talent, and thirdly that Spain, as the game’s global superpower, will inevitably be targeted by cash-rich owners.

Then, you’d look at the countries beneath — Germany, Argentina, Italy, Brazil, Holland — and you’d be tempted to lose the run of yourself simply because England’s clubs, with their deep pockets, still prefer, as a whole, to go for Irish over continental talent.

Sooner, rather than later, though, reality will bite.

Yes, Irish players are well represented in the Premier League but aside from James McCarthy, Seamus Coleman and Darron Gibson at Everton, the rest are playing with the unambitious or the untalented.

What used to be a big four is now a big six — Manchester City and Tottenham breaking into Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool’s cliquish hierarchy. Yet, within that big six, not one Republic of Ireland player is to be found.

So while all four of England’s clubs are heading for the knock-out stages of the Champions League, providing further evidence of its deserved status as one of the world’s best leagues, the harsh truth is that not one Republic of Ireland player helped them progress.

Nor is that likely to change soon, unless Arsene Wenger breaks the habit of a lifetime and signs an Irishman — Shane Long is on his radar — in the January window.

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Shane Long would break into a ‘Big-Six’ club if Arsenal sign him in the January transfer window

More to the point, no Irishman in any club, or any league, will be represented in Europe’s last 16. Anthony Stokes, at Celtic, was the only representative in the group stages.

So when you look with more forensic detail at the BBC’s survey, a key stat is missing.

Yes, Ireland scores well in the numbers game in England. But Europe has five top-class Leagues and England’s is only one of those.

La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga and La Ligue, are also rich in quality. And just like the Champions League, the absence of Irish representatives in those four countries is notable.

For O’Neill, this isn’t the end of the world. He has a greater depth of talent to pick from than Jack Charlton had.

The difference is that in Charlton’s day, Paul McGrath, Mark Lawrenson, Liam Brady, Ronnie Whelan, Frank Stapleton, Ray Houghton, John Aldridge, Kevin Moran and Kevin Sheedy were there at the start — and Andy Townsend, Roy Keane and Denis Irwin would join up later.

In other words, the cream rose to the top. O’Neill doesn’t have as much cream but has more milk.

All this has to be kept in mind when the qualifiers begin next September. With 23 spaces available for a place in Euro 2016, we have a right to be expectant.

Yet Brian Kerr made an interesting point last week in regard to a nation’s hopes.

“Some teams are simply stronger than us,” he said. “Some have much better players so you have to adjust your tactics accordingly. Martin will be aware of that.

“When he was at Leicester and Celtic, he would have selected certain players for certain games and picked a defensive shape because he knew he had to. Ireland’s media will have to accept that, too.

“Against some opposition, you just can’t expect an all-singing, all-dancing show. There has to be realism.”

It is rarely seen in Ireland, though.

As a nation, we look at opposing team sheets and disregard teams far too quickly. It’s time we looked at our own team-sheet and accepted where we are located.

It isn’t just in geographic terms that Ireland is separated from Europe’s elite.

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