You can’t tell the story of Irish football without the story of Irish footballers in England. For as long as the professional game has existed Irish players have made the short trip across the Irish Sea to earn a living. A combination of Brexit and a better-funded domestic league may see a gradual decrease in the numbers but for now, the relationship is alive and well. Some of the finest imports to the English game over the years have been from Ireland, from PFA player of the year winners to serial Premier League champions here is a selection of some of the greatest Irish players to play in English football.
“Everybody knew about him, but nobody had seen him” This was how Eamon Dunphy famously described how John Giles was viewed around Dublin when the pair were growing up just a few years apart. Giles honed his skills playing on the streets around Ormond Square in Dublin’s inner city as a kid in the 40s. He joined Manchester United in 1956 as a 16-year-old who were managed by Matt Busby at the time. Giles went on to make over 100 appearances for the club but eventually left in 1963 after he felt he ‘frozen out’ by Sir Matt Busby. Man United’s loss was Leeds United’s gain. The Dubliner along with Billy Bremner formed one of the most complete midfield partnerships in the history of English football and under the tutelage of Don Revie, they became one of the top club sides in Europe. He won 3 league titles, an FA Cup and narrowly lost out in the final of the 1975 European Cup to Bayern Munch whilst with the Elland Road side. Giles had stints as player-manager towards the end of his career at West Brom, Shamrock Rovers and the Irish national team but it is Leeds who he is most synonyms with. In 2010 Giles was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame.
Arguably Irelands most technically gifted player of all time Brady starred in both England and Italy during a glittering career. Known as ‘chippy’ (because of his love of chips) he joined Arsenal in 1971 as a 15-year-old from famed Dublin schoolboy’s St Kevins Boy’s and went on to be a club legend, making 235 appearances and scoring 43 goals. He was famed for his cultured left foot and creative style of play and helped The Gunners to the 1978/79 FA Cup. Brady himself was voted PFA player of the year in the same season. In 1980 he traded London for Turin and signed for Juventus. Serie A was the top league in Europe at the time but such was Brady’s talents he excelled there too. He lined out for Juventus, Inter, Sampdoria and Ascoli from 1980/81 to 1986/87. He returned to play for West Ham before eventually taking up a role at Arsenal as Director of the Youth Academy. Whilst in the role he developed such talents as Ashley Cole, Cesc Fabregas and Jack Wilshire. While many feel Brady’s international career with Ireland was cut short due to Jack Charlton he did score memorable winners against Brazil and France during his 72 caps.
While Robbie Keane is the most recognized Irish striker of recent years, the highest-scoring Irish player in the English top-flight of all time is Frank Stapleton. The Dubliner had a glittering career that saw him score 136 goals in the 1st Division, 10 more than Keane’s 126 in the Premier League. He joined Arsenal as an apprentice in 1972 and went on to make over 200 appearances for them including a goal in the 1979 FA Cup final win. In 1981 he moved to Manchester United and he helped them to two FA Cup wins in his 6-year stint. Stapleton then moved on Ajax and Anderlecht before returning to England to play for Blackburn and Bradford City amongst others. He notched 20 goals for Ireland during his international career and captained the Irish team to the 1988 Euro finals which included a memorable 1-0 win over England.
The ex-Manchester United man needs no introduction. While he is now more likely to pop up in a TV studio as a pundit, it was dominating Premier League games where he made his name. A recent online poll by SunSport saw Keane voted the greatest captain of the Premier League era, beating the likes of Steven Gerrard, John Terry and Vincent Kompany. With a trophy haul that includes seven Premier League titles, four FA Cups, three Community Shields, a Champions League and an Intercontinental Cup it’s hard to argue against that. He might have been famed for his aggressive box to box style but the Corkman’s ability on the ball was often overlooked. Wayne Rooney said of it “His passing was probably the best I’ve played with, in terms of getting it into the forwards’ feet had associated him with someone who got around the pitch, making tackles, but it was his passing that blew me away. Despite their sometimes frosty relationship, Keane was Sir Alex Ferguson’s manager on the pitch for the 12 and a half years he was at Old Trafford. One of the most ferocious competitors the Premier League has seen.
The third recipient of the PFA player the year award on this list after Brady and Keane. McGrath was a key figure for Ireland during their most successful period playing at two World Cups and one European Championships. He signed for Manchester United in 1982 after starring for League of Ireland club St Patricks Athletic. He made 163 appearances for United and was named man of the match in the FA Cup final victory over Everton in 1985. Alex Ferguson took over as manager in 1986 and while McGrath initially was selected by Ferguson a combination of his persistent knee injuries and his struggle with alcoholism eventually led to him being sold to Aston Villa. McGrath proved any doubters wrong and played over 300 games for Villa and finishing runners up in the league twice. He was voted PFA player of the year during the first season of the Premier League in 92/93. Equally adept in midfield or defence McGrath uniquely combined pace, strength and technical ability.
The youngest selection on the list Damien Duff’s quality has been known in Ireland since his exploits for the Irish underage international teams as a teenager. He joined Blackburn Rovers on schoolboy forms in 1996 from St Kevins Boys and made his debut on the final day of the 1996/97 season. He quickly became one of their key players and ended up as Rovers top goal scorer in 2002/03 A combination of his exploits for Blackburn and a starring role at the 2002 World Cup made Chelsea take note. Roman Abramovich had recently taken control of the club and the Londoners shelled out £17 million for his services in 2003/04. Duff became an integral part of Jose Mourinho’s first Chelsea side which won back to back Premier League titles in2004–05 and 2005–06. The Dubliner also starred in Europe scoring a famous goal as they beat Barcelona 4–2 in the Champions League. With him and Arjen Robben, Chelsea boasted two of the best wingers in world football at the time. After an injury-plagued time at Newcastle United Duff found his form again in London, with Fulham. He helped them to an unlikely Europa League Final in 2010 where they were eventually beaten by a strong Athletico Madrid team that included Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero. In 2002, whilst at Blackburn, Duff was named in the ‘UEFA team of the year’ alongside the likes of Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry.
Which other Irish imports do you think deserve a mention?
Written by Ryan Kilbane on behalf of Pog Mo Goal Magazine