A fantasy thought which often enters my mind, and presumably, the minds of many Irish football fans, is ‘what if Ireland’s greatest 11 footballers were all around and available in the same era?’ Despite our lack of success down the years, and how we have endured periods with a vast lack of quality in the national squad, Ireland has been blessed with some truly world class footballers throughout history. We are going to put together an all time XI of Irish footballers who we believe could be good enough to have taken the game to any squad. In order to put together the best combination of 11 players that we can think of, the formation for this team will be a 4-2-3-1.
Goalkeeper: Packie Bonner
Bonner or Given? For over 30 years straight, Ireland’s goalkeeping position was the least of the concerns of Irish faithful, and that is thanks to two men, Shay Given and our selection at number 1, Packie Bonner. This may have been the most difficult choice in the entire team for me, as both men are easily two of Ireland’s all time best eleven footballers. However, you can only field one goalkeeper and that is going to be Packie Bonner. Shay Given may have had a longer shelf life as a world class player, but Packie Bonner may have reached a higher peak in the late 80s and early 90s. The man who spent his entire club career with Celtic was nominated for the Ballon D’Or, coming in 17th place in 1989, and was crucial in Ireland’s storied campaign at the 1990 World Cup, helping Ireland to their first and only ever World Cup Quarter-final appearance, saving the deciding penalty in the shoot-out vs Romania. Bonner’s heroics and legendary status in Ireland just about edge out his fellow Donegal native Given, and allow him to take the first spot in this Ireland all time XI.
Right-back: Séamus Coleman
The only member of the current Ireland squad in our all time XI, which says more about the quality we have seen in our squads down the years than it does our current Irish squad, is current national team captain Séamus Coleman. Coleman has nailed down the right back spot for Ireland for the past decade and cemented himself as a true all time great for Ireland. Coleman has been the embodiment of consistency for club and country since making his debut for both, a consistency which has been rewarded with the captaincy for both teams. Coleman beats out some tough competition to claim the right-back spot in our team.
Centre-backs: Paul McGrath
Our central defenders are going to be a pairing that would strike fear into the heart of even the most confident of centre forwards. Our first pick for centre-back will be Paul McGrath. McGrath is a perfect example of a centre-back who can totally change a team from one who is struggling, to one who is confident enough to play without fear and compete on every level. McGrath was brought over to England by Manchester United in 1982, however, at club level he will be best known for his inspired performances for a top class Aston Villa side around the time of the beginning of the Premier League era. At international level, McGrath was the typical leader from the back who was willing to put everything on the line for his country, which inspired others to do the same. McGrath’s personal problems and injury issues were never big enough to keep him from putting on a world class performance in the green of Ireland.
Partnering Paul McGrath in our all time XI will be Richard Dunne. Although he wasn’t Paul McGrath, in the sense that he did not maintain the world class quality that McGrath did for as long as he did, Richard Dunne was as good of a successor to Paul McGrath at the heart of Ireland’s defence as any Irish fan could have asked for. Inspired, brave and always dedicated to the cause, Dunne displayed the same spirit that McGrath did in his prime in the Ireland shirt and displayed consistency and quality for the Boys in Green with some memorable, breathtaking defensive displays in his time. Dunne came along at the time Ireland needed him following the retirement of Paul McGrath, and though it took him a few years to really reach the potential he always looked capable of reaching, he ended up putting together a career in the green shirt that earns him a spot next to Paul McGrath in this squad.
Left-back: Denis Irwin
Though he regularly featured on the right flank for his country, Denis Irwin displayed consistent quality every week on the left hand side during his club career and we feel that left-back is where he could be best utilised in this team. Irwin is arguably the greatest left-back in the history of the Premier League, he was named in the ‘Overall team of the decade’ in the Premier League ‘10 seasons awards’ in 2002, and he was named in the ‘PFA team of the century’ in 2007. Irwin’s quality cannot be understated, he was one of the best full-backs in the world during his playing career, was a rock at the back and a threat going forward. He is an example of everything a well-rounded full-back should be and he easily gets into this squad.
Central midfielders: Johnny Giles
“As I look at all the character and talent at my disposal today, my only regret is that John Giles wasn’t born an Englishman.” This famous quote from English World Cup-winning manager Sir Alf Ramsey sums up why Johnny Giles takes the first central midfield spot in our squad. It would be criminal to leave Giles out of this squad. Giles had all of the ability in the world you could want from a footballer, and was someone who truly could do a job at either end of the pitch. A tough tackler, and a creative force in his playing career, Giles won everything there was to win domestically with Leeds United, and was a runner-up in the 1975 European Cup. He was named in a fan-voted ‘all time Leeds XI’, he was listed in the Football League’s ‘100 league legends’ in 1998 and was inducted into the English football hall of fame in 2010. Giles is a true Irish footballing legend who makes this squad more complete.
Alongside Johnny Giles in the centre of midfield is a man who was frequently compared to him throughout his career, Roy Keane. Another tough tackling central midfielder whose ability on the ball was second to none, Roy Keane is one of the finest footballers to ever come out of the Republic of Ireland. Keane won absolutely everything there was to win at club level and has been named in more honorary teams and has been given more individual awards than I could list in this paragraph. Roy Keane is revered for his playing career and despite the obvious elephant in the room being his early, unplanned departure from the Ireland squad at the 2002 World Cup in Saipan, it would be wrong to leave him out of this team. At international level, ignoring the unfortunate incident of Saipan, Keane brought his very best out onto the pitch at every opportunity he had to wear the Irish colours, and personal opinions aside, he is an Irish footballing legend.
Attacking midfield: Liam Brady
A man who was named alongside Johnny Giles in the Football League’s 100 legends in 1998, is Arsenal and Italian football legend Liam Brady. Brady is one of the most skilled and creative players to ever wear the Irish shirt and he is more than deserving of a place in this squad. The man who was three times named Arsenal’s player of the year has the exclusive honour of being Italian giants Juventus’ first foreign transfer since the Italian borders were re-opened to allow foreign transfers in 1980, and the Dublin man subsequently played a pivotal role in two successive Scudetto winning seasons for the Old Lady. Brady was often the most technically talented player in the sides he played for and was often relied on to provide the creative spark needed to make the difference in games, and as a result of that, the former Juventus number 10 will occupy a familiar position in the hole in our team.
Right wing: Ray Houghton
Who put the ball in the English net? Ray Houghton did and he will also occupy the right wing spot in our all time Ireland XI. Houghton was always a player adored by fans of whatever team he was playing for throughout his career. Houghton was a supporters dream on the pitch, due to his outstanding work ethic, along with his impressive playmaking ability. Houghton is also the proud scorer of one of the most iconic goals in the history of Irish football, the header against England at Euro ‘88 which became Ireland’s first ever goal scored at a competitive international tournament. All of this is more than enough to earn him the right wing spot in this team. Despite all his ability, the Scottish born Houghton could very well never have ended up playing for Ireland at all, with the deciding factor in him becoming an Irish international being that Jack Charlton expressed interest in him at a time when the Scottish national team didn’t. I think we can speak for all Irish fans when we say that we are delighted that the Scots overlooked this one.
Left wing: Damien Duff
Twice a winner of the Premier League as a member of Jose Mourinho’s original Chelsea side, Damien Duff looked destined to fulfill his world class potential from the very first time many Irish fans laid eyes on him as a youth coming through at Blackburn Rovers. Though injuries hampered a career that could have reached even greater heights, Duff was undeniably a world class player for the best part of a decade, and when he had the opportunity to get a consistent run of games under his belt, his ability was there for all to see. Duff was a member of the PFA team of the year in the 2000/01 season and perhaps his most impressive individual achievement, he earned himself a place in the 2002 UEFA team of the year in an attack alongside Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Ronaldo, doing so while playing in a mid-table Blackburn Rovers side. Damien Duff is one of Ireland’s greatest talents and he belongs on the left wing of this squad.
Striker: Robbie Keane
There could be no other man to occupy the strikers position of this team than Ireland’s record goalscorer with 68 international goals to his name, Robbie Keane. Keane has scored a countless amount of memorable goals throughout his international career. From qualification round goals for countless tournaments to iconic world cup goals, Robbie Keane inspired hope and belief for Irish fans throughout his international career. Keane promised hope to Irish fans from the early days of his career as he was the top scorer in Ireland’s successful 1998 U-18 European Championship-winning campaign, and he delivered in vital moments time and time again over the years. Keane is the only man who could occupy the striker’s position in this team.
That is what our impressive all-time Ireland XI looks like, and we think that this squad would be good enough to overcome any obstacle that presented itself to it. With Mick McCarthy announcing his squad for Ireland’s next two games vs Switzerland and Bulgaria yesterday, we will be hoping that the Ireland squad can channel some of these players in their performances in Ireland’s next big international fixtures.