Its a common sports quiz question, who was the last Irish international to play in the Champions League group stages?
Caoimhin Kelleher and Conor Masterson of Liverpool, Lee O’Connor of Manchester United, Tyreke Wilson and Gavin Bazunu of Manchester City and Troy Parrott of Tottenham are some of the young Irish Under-21 internationals who are members of the youth academy of some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
They will undoubtedly be aiming to walk out onto the pitch to the tune of that famous Champions League anthem one day. Ireland is currently experiencing a drought of footballers in the Champions League, which the FAI and all Irish football fans will hope to see come to a swift end. Despite the presence of Irish players in some of the world’s top youth academies, Irishmen have struggled to make the jump up to the highest level of football in recent years. Here are the last 6 Irishmen to have played in the UEFA Champions League.
We have to go all the way back to the 2014/15 season, and take a look at APOEL’s Champions League campaign from that season, to find the last Irish player to play Champions League football.
In that season, former Ireland international and Celtic youth player Cillian Sheridan had the pleasure of stepping out onto the field and representing the Cypriot club in Europe’s biggest and best competition. The 6’5 center-forward played an important role for APOEL’s campaign, scoring 3 goals in APOEL’s Champions League Group Stage qualifying campaign, and he was an ever-present in APOEL’s group stage campaign, playing in all 6 games.
The Cypriot’s only managed to pick up one point in the Champions League group stage, picking up a 1-1 draw at home against Dutch giants Ajax. They had a tough group which consisted of Ajax, Paris Saint-Germain and the eventual winners of the competition, Barcelona. It was surely an excellent experience and opportunity for the Cavan native, to represent himself, his club and to currently remain, the last man to represent Ireland in the Champions League Group Stage.
The season prior to Sheridan’s Champions League adventure with APOEL, Ireland and Celtic striker Anthony Stokes competed in the 2013/14 Champions League with Scottish giants Celtic. Celtic, just a year on from the season in which they famously toppled Barcelona 2-1 at Celtic Park, suffered a similar fate to APOEL in their Group Stage campaign, crashing out of the competition by finishing in the last place of a very competitive group.
Another parallel to APOEL’s campaign is that their one win in that season’s competition came at home against Ajax. Stokes, who featured in all 6 group games that season, and Celtic, unfortunately, did not have enough to contend with the strength of Europe’s elite, however if the former Arsenal youth was asked about his career highlights, you’d have to imagine playing an important role in Celtic’s Champions League campaign, though not a particularly successful one, would be up there.
Speaking of Celtic’s famous 12/13 Champions League Group Stage campaign, in which they toppled the mighty Barcelona, one of the other teams which the Scots had to go through in order to advance from that group, was Russian side Spartak Moscow.
One member of that season’s Spartak side who would have had a slightly bigger interest in their fixture against Celtic would have been the former Celtic winger, Aiden McGeady. An Irish international who was playing his football in Moscow, and participated in the 2012/13 Champions League Group Stages. McGeady’s Spartak side lost both of their games narrowly against an overachieving Celtic side who would ultimately advance from their group alongside Barcelona, and to continue the theme of Irish players crashing out of the Champions League, finished bottom of their group.
The undeniable ability of the tricky Irish winger McGeady would ultimately not be enough to secure Spartak’s Champions League safety, however McGeady’s career did not suffer too heavily, going on to join Premier League stalwarts Everton after one more season at Spartak and enjoying a respectable career in England after his time in Russia where he enoyed game time among some of the best Europe has to offer.
Ireland’s greatest ever goalscorer Robbie Keane participated in the 2010/11 Champions League with Tottenham. Though clearly past his prime, The Tottenham and Ireland legend made four appearances in Tottenham’s successful Champions League Group Stage campaign, in which, unlike the team’s with Irishmen who came after, the Tottenham side managed to top their group and eventually make it all the way to the Quarter-finals of the Champions League.
It is undeniable that the Irish talisman is one of the most deserving players on this list to have the opportunity to compete among Europe’s best. Robbie Keane operated at an extremely high level for over a decade, putting together a body of work which any goal scorer would be proud of.
Earning himself the honour of being known as the Irish national team’s all-time top scorer, by some distance, and one of the last truly world-class players to come out of Irish football, Robbie Keane was a real Champions League quality player, and he rightfully belongs on this list, as he represents a player to emulate for all future Irish players who wish to ply their trade in the Champions League in years to come.
The first of two Manchester United players to appear on this list from the 2010/11 season, it goes without saying that Ireland and Manchester United legend John O’Shea was, similarly to Robbie Keane, a Champions League worthy player for the majority of his career, which is exemplified by the fact that he is the most tenured, and most successful Champions League player on this list. O’Shea is the only Champions League winner on this list, as the Waterford man earned himself a Champions League medal in Manchester United’s successful 2007/08 European campaign.
O’Shea also played a part in Manchester United’s route to the final in both the 2008/09 and, more importantly, as it is the season we are discussing, the 2010/11 season. Despite failing to defeat an inspired Barcelona side under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola and benefitting from the services of one Lionel Messi, O’Shea’s 2010/11 Manchester United side made it all the way to the Champions League final in this season, which is further than any other Irishman has made it in the Champions League since this campaign, cementing O’Shea as another one of Ireland’s true European greats.
The second member of Manchester United’s 2010/11 Champions League runner up squad to make this list and the last player on our list is Irish midfielder, Darren Gibson. Though he didn’t enjoy as a career as successful or storied as United and Ireland legend John O’Shea, Gibson earned his place in Manchester United’s team and his place on this list. Gibson, like O’Shea, failed to make Manchester United’s bench for the 2011 Champions League final, however, the Derry native who went on to make 27 appearances for the Republic of Ireland national team made his contribution to the Red Devil’s Champions League campaign that season, with perhaps the highlight being his goal in United’s thumping of German side Schalke in the semi-finals. Gibson would only play one more season at Old Trafford before moving onto Everton in 2012, however, he completes our list as the tied-4th last Irishman to feature in the UEFA Champions League.
With many promising youth players on the way through multiple top youth academies, Irish fans can be optimistic to feel that it won’t be too much longer before another Irish representative makes his mark in the Champions League Group Stages and beyond.