In just a few months, both Irish international football teams will embark on their latest campaigns to qualify for a major tournament, the 2020 Euros.
This comes in the aftermath of the sacking of Martin O’Neill from his position as manager of the Republic of Ireland side following a lacklustre campaign in the newly devised UEFA Nations League tournament, which saw the Republic lose twice to Wales whilst drawing twice with Denmark.
Michael O’Neill’s Northern Ireland side fared even worse, losing all four games against Bosnia & Herzegovina and Austria- though, ironically, playing some nice football along the way.
Yet expectation levels will remain high for supporters of both Irish sides following on from successful qualification for the last Euros tournament (in 2016) and World Cup qualifying campaigns that saw both Irish teams reach the play off stages.
Part of the optimism is based on the fact that the modern expanded Euros tournament includes 24 nations- a far cry from the 1988 version of the tournament reached by the Republic of Ireland which involved just eight teams. On current FIFA rankings, both Ireland sides are among the top 24 European nations, with the Republic currently the 20th best ranked UEFA side and Northern Ireland the 22nd.
That being said, the convoluted (never mind contrived) nature of the qualification paths will guarantee qualification for a number of weaker footballing nations courtesy of the UEFA Nations League, thereby reducing the number of available places for the rest of the teams (including both Irelands).
The rankings can also give a false sense of confidence. There are currently four UEFA nations ranked below both Ireland sides who qualified for the Euro 2016 tournament: Iceland, Turkey, Hungary and Albania, whilst 2018 World Cup hosts and quarter-finalists are ranked at a lowly 48th in the world today.
The Euro 2020 draw was kinder to Mick McCarthy than it was to Michael O’Neill. For the Republic, qualification along the traditional route must involve securing a top two place in a group featuring two higher ranked sides in Denmark and Switzerland, a challenging proposition, not least given the recent experience of being thrashed 5-1 in Dublin by the Danes in the World Cup qualifier in November 2017.
Switzerland are not to be underestimated either, having qualified for the 2018 World Cup at the expense of Northern Ireland and reaching the last sixteen in the last three major tournaments (2014 and 2018 World Cups and 2016 Euros).
Yet no one will dispute that Northern Ireland face a tougher task, having been drawn with Germany and the Netherlands, two traditional powerhouse nations of the game with recent experiences leaving them smarting and with something to prove.
Germany’s nightmare outing at the 2018 World Cup was followed up by a dismal UEFA Nations League campaign, whilst the Dutch are aiming to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since 2014.
Back in October, I read this fascinating interview with Michael O’Neill in The Irish Times. In the piece, the Northern Ireland manager pointed to the fact that, on the weekend prior to the interview, there were only four Premier League players who featured in matches actually born on the island of Ireland.
As a sobering illustration of where both Ireland sides feature today in terms of relative strength of footballing panels against other nations, it was very revealing.
Of course, on one level it highlights how the financial clout of the Premier League has led to teams being able to cast the net wide on a global scale to attract talent from every continent. The halcyon days of the 1970s and 1980s, when Irish players featured prominently in the starting lineups of teams who would annually compete for the league title, is long gone.
The O’Neill interview intrigued me and so I decided to conduct a study of Irish involvement in this week’s fixtures in the three best professional leagues within which Irish football players ply their trade: the English Premier League, Championship and Scotland’s SPFL.
The post-Christmas Boxing Day/27th December fixtures in the Premier League saw just one Northern Ireland player feature (Craig Cathcart) with one other an unused substitute (Johnny Evans).
For the Republic of Ireland, there were six starters (Cyrus Christie, Matt Doherty, Seamus Coleman, Jeff Hendrick, Shane Duffy and Declan Rice) with two others featuring as used substitutes (Harry Arter and Shane Long) and a further four unused substitutes (Conor Coventry, Kevin Long, Greg Cunningham and Ciaran Clark).
In the Premier League season to date, just three NI players have featured at any point in games (Craig Cathcart, Johnny Evans and Steve Davis), securing 31 appearances between them and one goal.
For the Republic of Ireland, 13 players have featured to date in the Premier League, winning 157 appearances and scoring 11 goals collectively (N.B. these figures include Declan Rice, who has made 15 appearances but whose status as a Republic of Ireland player remains to be confirmed).
To put these figures in context, I have included the relevant statistics for a number of other countries in the tables below (courtesy of the transfermarkt.co.uk site), starting with Premier League statistics for European countries featuring in the top 20 of FIFA’s World Rankings (excluding England):
|Belgium (9)||Spain (14)||Germany (6)||Netherlands (3)|
|Portugal (2)||Denmark (2)||Italy (4)||Switzerland (3)|
|France (11)||Croatia (2)||Sweden (1)||Wales (2)|
Most of the Croatian squad play for teams of Champions League caliber in Italy, Spain, Germany or France; similarly, players from all of the countries above can be found plying their trade at the highest level of the European leagues.
As importantly, the figure in brackets beside each country’s name lists the number of players from that country who play for one of the Big Six teams in the Premier League (Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester United).
Neither Irish international team has a player who has featured for one of the top six clubs in England.
The figures for lesser European nations and countries from further afield puts into context the relative weakness of the Irish teams’ playing panels:
|Cameroon (1)||Ghana (0)||Egypt (2)||Senegal (1)|
|Nigeria (2)||Mexico (0)||Jamaica (0)||Iceland (0)|
|USA (0)||Australia (0)||Scotland (2)||Norway (0)|
The Premier League’s success has squeezed out of the top tier of English football the best talent produced from this island. Yet the figures for Irish involvement in The Championship (England’s second tier) are not promising.
All 24 Championship sides were involved in fixtures on Boxing Day. On the day, just seven Northern Ireland players started games, with a further three being used as substitutes and 3 more unused substitutes.
The figures improved for the Republic, with some 16 players starting games, a further four being used as substitutes and 6 as unused substitutes.
To put that in context, there were four Dutch players who started in the Aston Villa- Swansea game alone on Boxing Day, whilst across the Championship, three Australians started games, one was used as a substitute and one an unused substitute.
The third league within which Irish internationals can be found playing professionally is, of course, Scotland’s highest division, the Scottish Premier Football League.
Yet again, however, the statistics for Irish players who featured in Boxing Day fixtures is not promising, particularly for Northern Ireland.
Across all twelve SPFL teams, just four Northern Irish players started games (Niall McGinn, Lee Hodson, Michael Smith and Jordan Jones) with one featuring as a used substitute (Kyle Lafferty) and one an unused substitute (Aaron Hughes).
The figures were more promising for the Republic, with eight players starting (Joe Shaughnessy, Andy Boyle, Darren O’Dea, Colin Boyle, Charles Dunne, Carl McHugh, Gary Dicker and Alan Power) three as used substitutes (Johnny Hayes, Daryl Horgan and Jake Mulraney) and a further five as unused substitutes (Chris Forrester, Stephen Gleeson, David McMillan, Conor Sammon and Daniel Rogers).
Intriguingly, there were five Australians who started SPFL fixtures on the day, one more than NI players, with a used substitute also featuring and an unused substitute.
So what does all this mean?
Put simply, qualification will continue to be a struggle for both Ireland teams, and that should not come as any surprise. 2016 represented the first tournament Northern Ireland managed to qualify for since the 1986 World Cup, whilst the Republic’s qualification for the 2012 and 2016 tournaments were the first for the Euros since 1988.
Both Irish sides continue to feature in the FIFA World Rankings (Republic at 33rd and Northern Ireland at 35th) ahead of fellow European countries like Scotland, Czech Republic and Russia who have superior leagues and players regularly featuring in leagues and for teams of a higher standard.
Of course, the role of management can make a significant difference. Player for player, Scotland should be competing more confidently for a place in major tournaments given the relative strength of their playing pool when compared with either Irish teams, yet they have not managed to secure qualification to any major tournament this century.
The nail in the coffin for Martin O’Neill’s managerial tenure was the dismal performance against Northern Ireland. The statistics may suggest that the Republic’s playing pool is wider and deeper than their Northern Irish counterparts, but anyone in attendance on that night would testify to the fact that only one team played with any sense of confidence, fluency or flair. That is the difference a manager can make, and why both Ireland sides can enter the new campaigns with a renewed sense of hope.
Hopefully 2019 brings reasons to cheer for both sets of teams and supporters.
Irish participation in the major English and Scottish Leagues (26th/27th December 2018)
|Rep Ireland||Northern Ireland|
N.B. The figures relating to playing time for players from each country is sourced from the transfermarkt site. I did discover one omission relating to an Irish player, Michael Obafemi, whose statistics were not included and had to be added.