THERE was little doubt that young Douglas player Adam Idah was the star of the weekend's Third Round FA Cup action cross channel. The former College Corinthians youngster wowed the English media with a hat-trick in Norwich City’s 4-2 win over Preston North End.
In a big weekend overall for Irish players in England, Will Smallbone made his first-team debut and scored a goal for Southampton on an assist from former Cork City player Shane Long in the south-coast club’s victory over Huddersfield.
Another Irish debutant to find the back of the net was Dan Crowley, who put Birmingham into an early lead against Blackburn Rovers in their 2-1 triumph against the former Premier League champions.
More established Irish internationals like Burnley’s Jeff Hendrick and Fulham’s Harry Arter also scored in their respective victories over Peterborough United and Aston Villa.
On Sunday, Callum Robinson made the scoresheet in Sheffield United’s victory over lowly AFC Fylde, while Paul Green fired one in for Crewe Alexandra in their defeat to Barnsley.
Elsewhere, there were club debuts for Zach Elbouzedi at Lincoln, Conor Masterson at QPR and Yassine En-Neyah at Nottingham Forest. While there was an assist for former Tramore Athletic, Everton, and Cork City youth Chiedozie Ogbene for Rotherham against Hull.
Over the entire weekend, 41 Republic of Ireland players would see action in the FA Cup. 10 of them from the bench.
Indeed Saturday felt like the good old days of the 80s and 90s, as news of Irish scorers and assists flowed in. Back then, before the days of live matches, one would watch a game via Aertel, RTÉ's trustee Teletext service, where they always included the all-important Irish scorer by highlighting the name in patriotic neon green.
Back then, it was not unusual to see multiple green names scroll out across the service’s soccer pages as the Irish exiles did the business week in week out for their British employers.
Those days, unfortunately, are a distant memory and while the performances of the current Irish internationals may rekindle hopes of a return to those days when our countrymen rubbed shoulders with the best of British and European football, there is sadly little from last weekend’s heroics that will see most of these boys in green advance their situation and careers to full senior appearances or established roles in the Premier League.
Let’s admit it, how many of us playing Fantasy Premier League have Irish players in their selection? Maybe Matt Doherty at Wolves?
While doing their prospects no harm, it nevertheless needs to be accepted that the reason so many Irish players were having their day in the sun this weekend was actually thanks to the fact that many of their managers were using the Irish players as part of their second-string teams as the now debased FA Cup gets further marginalised due to the requirements of claiming Premier League and Championship honours and survival.
That the bulk of our players saw action this past weekend really shows that they no longer inhabit a central role in the majority of clubs, especially the higher up the food-chain you go. Seeing an Irish player’s name in a Premier League starting XI is now a rare spectacle and even more of a rarity when you get to a top-six side. It has been a while since glory times when we punched way above our weight.
Making the cut in the FA Cup third-round match no longer cuts it when you are trying to impress a modern manager and your use in these games usually indicates (but not always) that you are far from a priority in the manager’s estimations.
There are many reasons for this and few are the fault of the young Irish players. A change in the style of game and the rush by clubs to buy quick-fit players from across the globe means that working your way through the academy system is now harder than ever.
Of course, the FA Cup and League Cup matches do provide a platform in some cases for a player’s performance to be so impressive that it demands the manager to recognise the presence of an emerging or returning player’s talent. That may well be the case for Idah at Norwich. His impressive hat-trick and the fact that regular striker Teemu Pukki looks to be losing his battle in time to recover from injury may see Norwich manager Daniel Farke select the young Corkman to lead the line for their visit to Old Trafford tomorrow.
If given the chance, Idah will again be required to do the business against the Manchester giants. It is a cutthroat business in professional sport and you are only as good to the club as your last performance. However, if there is anyone from the recent crop of Irish talent that looks capable of breaking into the big time then Adam Idah is it.
Sadly, Irish players have not been cutting it at the top for a while but it’s not all doom and gloom, there are green shoots (so to speak) for us to be optimistic in the medium to long term. Of the eight teenagers to make their Premier League debut this season four of them have been Irish players. Troy Parrott at Spurs, Idah at Norwich, Michael Obafemi at Southampton and Aaron Connolly at Brighton. And exciting talents they are too.
Let’s hope that we will soon see a return to the glory days of Irish players at the pinnacle of the game, if no longer in the luminous green of Aertel then in the points of our fantasy football teams at least.