THE TOUCH PAPER is about to be lit on another Premier League season and although Irish players may not be grabbing all the headlines, there are enough talented green-tinged professionals operating in England to keep us interested.
While seasoned professionals such as Ian Harte and Shay Given are entering their twilight years, a raft of young Irish talents on the fringes of Premier League action are hoping to have a breakthrough year.
Others will strive to add to their burgeoning reputations while some will be aware that sustaining runs in the first team will help their international prospects.
This time last year, James McClean was a promising young player who had performed well enough at Derry City to earn a three-year contract with Sunderland.
By 8 January he had played six games in a row for Sunderland and had scored twice. In June he appeared for Ireland at Euro 2012.
Irish fans can only hope that his meteoric rise continues and another young pretender steps up and takes his chance when he earns his turn. Here are six Ireland players to watch out for.
Keiren Westwood needs to become Martin O’Neill’s No. 1. (Joe Giddens/EMPICS Sport)
The retirement of Given has left Keiren Westwood as the man in possession of this Irish goalkeeper’s jersey. The 27-year-old performed well in the 0-0 friendly draw with Serbia and can expect to start his country’s World Cup qualifying campaign against Kazakhstan in September.
What the former Manchester City trainee needs most, however, is for his Sunderland coach, Martin O’Neill, to show sufficient faith and start him from the first game of the season onward. The fact that O’Neill released €11m Scottish ‘keeper Craig Gordon from the club bodes well but Westwood will have to grasp any chance he gets to consign Belgian stopper Simon Mignolet to the sub’s bench.
Samir Carruthers tangles with Conor Clifford. (John Walton/EMPICS Sport)
Like Westwood, Samir Carruthers was born in England but has committed himself to the Irish cause. He has represented Ireland, through the grandparent rule, eight times at U19 level and was a trainee at Arsenal for three years.
The winger is one of eight Irish players at Aston Villa and made his debut for the club in a 1-1 draw with Liverpool at Anfield in April. Just a week previous he had featured on a sub’s bench for a game against Chelsea, sitting beside fellow Ireland teenagers Derrick Williams and Jack Grealish. The 19-year-old will be hoping that new coach Paul Lambert will give him some game time early in the Premier League season.
Other Irish prospects hoping to put their hand up this year are Conor Clifford (Chelsea), Conor Henderson (Arsenal) and Pierce Sweeney (Reading).
The Dark Horse
(Stephen Pond/EMPICS Sport)
Another English-born player that has committed himself to the Irish cause. Pilkington made a name for himself as an attacking midfielder with Huddersfield Town but really came to the fore when he was signed by Norwich City last summer.
The 24-year-old, along with Wes Hoolahan, was a font of creativity mixed with due diligence in the Canaries’ midfield last year. He scored eight times and laid on goals for strikers Grant Holt and Steve Morison at a steady pace. With Aston Villa snapping up Lambert, many will hope that the new man in charge, Chris Hughton, will continue to play to the strengths of Pilkington and Hoolahan.
Capped just the once at Ireland U21 level, Pilkington got his first call-up for the senior squad on 14 August but it was short-lived (two hours) as injury prevented him from travelling to Belgrade.
The Great White Hope
Seamus Coleman has yet to fully convince David Moyes or Giovanni Trapattoni. (Joe Giddens/EMPICS Sport)
The call for Seamus Coleman to feature, as a minimum, at right-back for the Irish senior side was cacophonous before Euro 2012 and, since that three-game humbling in Poland, the clamour has never died down. Coleman made an instant impact for Everton on his debut when he set up one goal and caused plenty of mayhem in the lead-up to another.
It is hard to imagine but that debut was three years ago. In between there was a loan spell at Blackpool, where he briefly excelled, and a debut for Ireland. His substitute’s appearance against Serbia recently was his sixth cap for Ireland.
However, Coleman cannot seem to quite convince his managers at club and international level that he is worth taking a regular punt on. The former Sligo Rovers player reported early for pre-season training with The Toffees and will be hoping that this season will be the one where he steps up to Premier League and Ireland regular.
The Shining Light
Another goal in a remarkable debut season for McClean. (Steve Drew/EMPICS Sport)
As mentioned above, the Derry native made such an impact in his half a season of regular football at Sunderland that Irish supporters may have chained themselves to the gates of the FAI headquarters in Abbottstown if he was omitted from the Euro 2012 squad.
McClean has yet to electrify for Ireland, although it is early days, and he will not be the surprise package in this season’s Premier League campaign. That being said, those close to McClean have remarked on the increase of workload and responsibility the midfielder has sought. It bodes well for Sunderland and Ireland.
The Elder Statesman
Now you see me: Ian Harte. (Tony Marshall/EMPICS Sport)
Ian Harte made his last appearance for Ireland in 2007. He effectively fell off the radar after a reasonable spell at Levante in Spain and 12 matches spread out over two seasons with Sunderland then Blackpool. The left-back, who has scored 12 times for his country, was not done yet as he enjoyed a productive 18 months with Carlisle United.
Championship side Reading came calling and Harte has been a virtual ever-present on the team’s rise back to the top division. He turns 35 on 31 August so even if The Royals avoid relegation, it may be the last time we witness Harte and his trademark, curling free-kicks.