What a fantastic year it’s been for Irish football.
The national team heroically made it to the last 16 of last Summer’s European Championship and League of Ireland champions Dundalk qualified for the group stages of the Europa League, picking up an unprecedented 4 points in the process.
With Martin O’Neill’s men currently joint top of their World Cup qualifying group and the squad arguably being the strongest it’s been in 10+ years it’s time to now look to the future. So who are the next crop of Shane Long’s and Seamus Coleman’s? We here at Oxygen.ie think we have the answers.
We begin with Aston Villa and Ireland u19s defender Kevin Toner. The former Ashbourne United and Home Farm centre half is currently on loan at League one side Bradford having spent the first half of the season at Bescot Park impressing at the back for Wallsall. Despite only being 20 years of age Toner already has Premier League experience having played four times for Aston Villa’s first team towards the end of last season. Toner is an aggressive defender who can operate as either a centre back or a left back and despite being comfortable in possession, won’t hesitate to put the ball into row Z if necessary. The young defender has represented Ireland 8 times at u19 level and recently made his Bradford City debut in front of the Sky cameras scoring his first professional goal in his side’s 3-2 defeat to Scunthorpe. Toner will be hoping that he can build on his first performance with the Bantams and in turn work his way back into the fray at Villa Park
Having recently been called up to Ireland’s provisional 39-man squad ahead of their games with Wales and Iceland, Reading midfielder Liam Kelly is already being lined up by O’Neill and Co. to be a big part of the future international set up. 21-year-old Kelly has been impressing with his club side Reading, playing 20 times and scoring once, despite only making his league debut in October of last year. Kelly is very much an attack minded midfielder and the silky number 10 could prove to be a long-term option to replace the aging Wes Hoolahan should his excellent club from continue. His manager at Reading, Jaap Stam, has been full of praise for Kelly this season referring to his passing and technique as “world class”. In an interview with GetReading.co.uk Staam said “Liam is a quality player. He is a player who has great skills, he’s very comfortable on the ball and can go past players as well.” Capped at u19 and u21 level, the young attacking midfielder qualifies to play for Ireland through his grandparents despite being English born. With Kelly being an integral part of a Reading side sitting comfortably in the Championship playoff spots, it should only be a matter of time before the young man earns his first cap for the Boys in Green.
Perhaps the most familiar name on the list, it never quite worked out for 20 year old Irish midfielder Jack Byrne at Manchester City. Currently at Championship strugglers Wigan Athletic, Byrne shot to prominence last season after a very impressive loan spell at Eredivisie side SC Cambuur where he scored 4 times in 27 games. Byrne is small in stature but technically excellent and is a midfielder with an exceptional range of passing. He predominantly plays in the heart of the midfield but is also effective operating in the number 10 role or out wide; a versatility which is key in the modern game. Despite never making a first team appearance during his time at City and a disappointing loan spell at Blackburn Rovers, Byrne is still very young and has bags of potential. He has played 10 times for the Irish U21s and was called up to train with Martin O’Neill’s men in March 2016 although he did not earn a cap. If the young Dubliner can get back to playing regular first team football then who knows how far he could go at international level.
Since the return of manager Ian Holloway to QPR a handful of young players at the club have been given first team opportunities in a bid to revitalise their disappointing Championship season. One player who has taken his opportunity with both hands is 20 year midfielder Ryan Manning. Having impressed with Irish First Division sides Mervue United and Galway United, Manning signed for QPR in January 2015 and made his first team debut under Holloway in his sides victory over Wolves on New Years Eve. Manning’s debut coincided with Rangers first win in six games with his manager heaping praise on the Galway born midfielder. “I think Ryan Manning was absolutely outstanding and epitomised what my QPR was before and what I want it to be in the future” said Holloway. Since then Manning has played twelve times for the London club scoring one goal. Manning plays predominantly as a central midfielder and as well having an impressive range of passing, is not afraid of a battle in the middle of the park. Like Liam Kelly, if Manning can continue to play regularly and impress at Championship level then he should certainly be a player that O’Neill can all up to future first team squads.
18 year old Liverpool academy player Conor Masterson grabbed headlines a couple of months ago after first team manager Jurgen Klopp singled him out as a player he had been impressed with during his sides mid season training camp in La Manga Spain, calling he and German player Yan Dhanda “the next boys” to come up from the academy. Masterson is currently the captain of the Liverpool u18s side and despite his preferred position being at centre half, the former Lucan United man’s versatility means he is able to also play in the midfield or in attack should he be required. In addition to his role in the u18s squad Masterson has also featured for the u23s as well as being named on the first team bench for Liverpool’s third round FA Cup tie with Exeter in January. Masterson is currently the captain of the Irish u19s side having also previously captain the u17s side on a number of occasions It’s clear that Klopp has big plans for the agile centre half and should he break into the first team squad next season then he could find himself included in the full Irish international set up sooner rather than later.