Football's Wild Geese Continue to Fly
One of the few sectors of modern Irish society to still endure the forlorn exile of emigration would seem to be our poor, ragged professional footballers. Of course, for generations young striplings have been banished from their crumbling thatched hovels, their shawl-wrapped mothers keening at the half-door, to scrounge a living in the football hotbeds of Albion. Now, however, it seems that even the menfolk of the Eircom league are being forced to follow in the footsteps of the tattie-hokers and tunnel tigers of yore, and head off for work in England and Scotland.
The contributory factors to this latter-day scattering of Wild Geese are varied. The financial implosion of Shelbourne F.C., the reigning champions of the Eircom League, has aided the departure of defender Sean Dillon to Dundee United, winger Bobby Ryan to Dunfermline Athletic and, only yesterday, the league's top scorer, Jason Byrne, to Cardiff City.
But the pattern of the exodus is too broad to be purely the manifestation of fiscal woes. George O'Callaghan of Cork City, like Byrne one of the league's top players, joined the Shels man in jumping the emigrant boat, heading for the gold-paved streets of Ipswich Town. And these two are just the latest in a procession of players departing since the end of the domestic season in November.
Since the opening of the January transfer window Motherwell signed Trevor Molloy and Paul Keegan of St.Pat's and Danny Murphy of Cork City, Wolves have recruited Bohemians striker Stephen Ward and another Corkman, Roy O'Donovan, has been the subject of speculation about a possible trial at Celtic.
The volume of talent being picked off by cross-channel clubs has led to two popular conclusions. Firstly, that the resounding success of Reading's measly speculation on Kevin Doyle (signed from Cork City for £78,000 in 2005 and now a big, shiny Premiership star) has led to British clubs, ever sharp to the whiff of a bargain, sniffing out the league from whence Doyle came for similar value.
Secondly, that Ireland is the new Scandinavia. Just as the 1990s saw managers send their scouts to scour the fjords and litter-free streets of Norway, Denmark and Sweden for gems like Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, Peter Schmeichel and Freddie Ljungberg, now the Eircom league is plundered for the loot of keenly-priced pros, who, like their Scandinavian predecessors, speak English, don't mind the rain and understand the prevailing football culture.
This trend, is, of course, disappointing for Eircom league supporters. Not only have Shelbourne's woes (in addition to the loss of players, manager Pat Fenlon has defected to Derry City) denuded Ireland's representatives in next season's Champions League of the clout to continue our recent European progress, but also the loss of quality players, by definition, diminishes the league.
The efforts made in developing full-time soccer in order to strengthen the domestic game (apart from leading to Shelbourne's near bankruptcy) have, ironically, boosted standards to the extent that the league's best players are now seen as useful targets for British clubs - thereby damaging the league in the end anyway.
In some ways, the league is therefore becoming a victim of its own success.
It seems that, rather than resembling the huddled masses of the famine emigrants, the current footballing exiles are in parallel with the brain drain of the 1980s - the best and brightest, with their fortunes to seek.