Away Days by Gareth Maher: Irish players beat the odds in the world’s most popular league

Contrary to what you might think, there was professional football in the UK before the Premier League became Rupert Murdoch’s battleship to drive subscriptions to his Sky TV channels.

It was not the prospect of his money that prompted First Division clubs to form their own league in 1992. Over the next 30 seasons, the Premier League became the most popular sports league in the world. gender and participation has skyrocketed. Sky’s current contract in partnership with BT Sport – £4.5bn in total – costs almost 25 times what was initially paid.

As popularity has spread, football in the UK has grown into a global commodity. Big money means big contracts. Players from Ireland, such as Scots and Wales, are unlikely to get the top spot.

When Liverpool won the European Cup in 1984, Ronnie Whelan and Mark Lawrenson of Ireland were on the team. Michael Robinson is on the bench. On that tragic night at Heysel a year later, Jim Beglin was also in the lineup.

Jim went missing in 1988 when Liverpool won the old First Division – he was recovering from a severe broken leg – but there were five Irish players who won medals that year – Whelan and Lawrenson, John Aldridge, Ray Houghton and Steve Staunton.

Contrast that with 30 years of the Premier League. Liverpool have deployed more Spaniards than any other nationality other than British. Only nine Irish players have played for the club during that time. So far this season, of the 20 clubs that make up the Premier League, only seven Irish have taken part.

It was a brave step by Gareth Maher to lay out the 30-year history of the Irish player in the Premier League. Result – Days away – is, in the author’s own words, a book about Irish people regardless of circumstances. Apparently none of the 30 players he profiled – one a year -. Roy Keane is noted for his absence, so he shares the same name as Robbie. Paul McGrath is also missing. But theirs are stories that have been broadcast well elsewhere.

From interviews with big names popping up, there are new nuggets to enjoy. Arsène Wenger considers Niall Quinn to be the best header he has ever seen. Quinn was flattered. “At least someone noticed what I was doing.” (That quote is not entirely correct – I removed the expiration!)

John O’Shea remained calm while offers were made, completing his Leaving Certificate and winning the Under-16 European Championship under Brian Kerr the same summer of 1998.

The chapters on how Jeff Kenna and Shay Given illuminate everything from the start. Manchester United were the first champions and kept their title. But the third season produced unexpected winners. The first instance of the title being purchased?

Blackburn Rovers are owned by a millionaire businessman, Jack Walker, who has put his fortune in their favor. He hired Kenny Dalglish as manager, then twice broke the British transfer record, signing Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton. While he’s not going further than the bench, he’s shedding light on what it feels like to be inside a title-winning squad.

Kenna, a Southampton player later, told how he knew he had been targeted by Blackburn when he joined the Ireland team for the first time, in a friendly against Lansdowne Road against England having been left out because a riot. Shearer discovered him. “See you guys soon,” said the England striker. Kenna signed with Blackburn not long after.

Video of the day

I was commenting for RTÉ at Goodison Park the day Richard Dunne signed for Everton. I never knew it almost didn’t happen. Richard’s uncle Theo, a legendary figure of the League of Ireland and a coach at his club, Home Farm, was reluctant to push him because it could seem like bias. Theo was at Goodison that day, with Richard’s father, Dick.

That teenager has developed into one of the stars of the Premier League: 431 appearances, at Manchester City, Aston Villa and Queen’s Park Rangers as well as Everton, and 80 international caps. The fact that he is a Premier League record holder is, perhaps understandably, overlooked Days away. No one has come close to Richard Dunne in his 10 Premier League home goals.

Glenn Whelan perfectly responded to his criticism. “People say ‘You’re safe’ [in your choice of pass], you went backwards, you went sideways ‘but I know what kind of person I am on the team. I have to give the ball to better players… who will assist.”

Where Maher’s book really scores is in the detail he brings about players who have been part of the story even though they never appear in the headers and footers. Players like Keith O’Halloran, who was at Middlesbrough in the 1990s when that unfashionable club were splashing money and bringing in the Brazilians and the highly-maintained Italian Fabrizio Ravanelli.

Or Paddy McCarthy, unable to deal with the injury that has sidelined him at the worst possible time, which means he only made one Premier League appearance, as a sub. A fascinating study, Days away is a fascinating read. Just perfect for a football fanatic like me.

Sport: Away Days by Gareth Maher
New Island, 262 pages, paperback € 17.95; eBook £6.64


Away Days by Gareth Maher

George Hamilton will chat with Gareth Maher during the South Dublin Library’s Red Line Festival this Sunday, October 16, at Tallaght Stadium from 6pm, Away Days by Gareth Maher: Irish players beat the odds in the world’s most popular league

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