With the English Premier League season now well into its final quarter; many Irish internationals plying their trade cross channel face the prospect of a relegation dogfight.
With Wolverhampton Wanderers six points (effectively seven when considering goal difference) adrift of safety it looks as if four players (Stephen Hunt, Stephen Ward, Kevin Doyle and Kevin Foley) almost certain to be on the plane as part of Giovanni Trapattoni’s Euro 2012 squad will depart for the Euros with their club having fallen through the relegation trap door.
While former Cork City star Doyle, for one, could find a lower-half Premier League club come the summer transfer window; the future looks even more doubtful for the other three Wolves’ regulars who regularly form part of Trap’s Irish squad.
Hunt, having suffered recurring injuries over recent seasons, has made just 41 appearances for Wolves since signing from Hull in summer 2010. Now turning 31, it is unlikely that many/any Premier League clubs would be willing to risk a player who is at this stage, clearly injury prone. Coupled with the fact that Wolves will almost certainly be playing Championship football next season, they will however look to offload one of their highest earners.
Other regulars in the Wolves’ and Ireland first team squads; Stephen Ward and Kevin Foley had been making steady if unspectacular progress at both club and international level, though both would face a most uncertain future should the club go down.
While one door closes on players another one opens and it is worth mentioning that the Wolves academy and reserve side boasts a number of Irish young star such as Anthony Forde, Aaron McGrarey and Matt Doherty who could come to the fore if/when Wolves enter English football’s second tier at the end of the season.
Another club with more than a sprinkling of representatives hailing from the Emerald Isle are Wolves’ west Midlands rivals Aston Villa. The Villains have endured a miserable run of just one win from their last eight league outings. That coupled with an upsurge in form of a number of the clubs below them in the table leaves Villa lying just five points above the drop zone with eight games to play.
Earlier this season; Villa released a photo of an all-Irish XI at Villa Park. While some on show were loan signings (most notably Robbie Keane); should Villa’s form continue to plummet then four regular Villa starters will go to Euro 2012 with their club having been demoted to the Championship.
Should Villa face the drop; one could not blame center-half tyro Richard Dunne or goalkeeper Shay Given as the club’s 42 goals conceded is the same as sixth placed Newcastle’s and only one more than third placed Arsenal’s. Should the Birmingham club go down however, the Irish pair – with 195 international caps between them – would almost certainly be moving on.
Twice capped center-half Ciaran Clarke would also face an uncertain future. Other Irish at the club include Stephen Ireland – who is said to fancy a return to international football though doubtless wouldn’t be as keen on playing in the Championship. Several other as yet uncapped Irish men would also fear for their future should Villa face the dreaded dropped. Most notable among the latter list would be former Shamrock Rovers star Enda Stevens, Graham Burke, Derrick Williams and Jack Grealish.
“I don’t think I have ever not been worried about relegation this season,” – Aston Villa boss Alex McLeish has admitted to English media. Villa have the hardest run-in of all of the sides at the wrong end of the table (with the Villains still having to visit Anfield and Old Trafford as well as hosting Champions League chasing Tottenham and in-form Sunderland). They will go into those matches without influential players such as injured trio Darren Bent, Richard Dunne and Charles N’Zogbia as well as skipper Stiliyan Petrov.
Villa will be pleased to see the back of this season; their one (on-field) wish being that they are still a Premier League club at the end of it. If they fail to pick up a few wins from their remaining matches then they will very likely no longer be a Premier League club come the end of May.
Returning to clubs currently in the relegation zone; Wigan Athletic’s Irish starlet James McCarthy looks a long shot to make the plane to the Euros, but, if a few injuries/loss of form come into the mix, he will certainly come into the running for a trip to Poland. Fellow Latics’ players (and Irish underage internationals) Rob Kiernan and Conor Sammon would also not benefit from Wigan slipping into the second tier.
So, much is at stake for many Irish internationals at the lower end of the “best league in the world” as the season reaches its climax. Should their club exit the top flight; most will find it exceedingly difficult to to get back into the division and pit their wits against the best in the football business.
When footballers are winning games, football is no burden, they could play every day. Losing regularly is a very different story however. From an Ireland perspective; a fight against relegation is one which causes a physical and emotional toll on a player. A failed fight against relegation proves even more draining still. With the English Premier League season set to finish barely two weeks before Ireland depart for Poland; one wonders if that will be a sufficient recovery period for tired bodies (and more importantly; tired and drained minds – minds many of whose futures will be far from certain) to recover?