After Jack Byrne’s move to Cypriot outfit APOEL Nicosia, Ronán Daly considers the merits of Irish players looking for opportunities further afield than the English and Scottish leagues.
Following back-to-back PFAI player of the year awards and helping Shamrock Rovers end a 30-year wait for an FAI Cup and a 10-year wait for a League title, it was little surprise to anyone that Jack Byrne decided to take his services outside of the League of Ireland (LOI). What may have come as a surprise to some was the Rovers star man deciding to make the move to Cypriot giants APOEL Nicosia, bucking the trend of Ireland’s best talents making the move across the Irish sea to Scotland or England’s lower leagues.
One of the clubs Byrne was linked with was Championship side Preston North End, a club that has seen many of the LOI’s finest talents join its ranks in recent season. Dundalk duo Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan both made the move to Preston in 2016, and Cork duo Sean Maguire and Kevin O’Connor, as well as Rovers' Graham Burke, did the same the following year. With the average wage in the championship currently at £29,000 per week, the financial incentive for making the move across to England is clear.
Although these transfers are unlikely to immediately be on those types of wages, they would still be earning a significantly larger amount than even the LOI’s big-guns like Dundalk and Rovers could offer. However, Jack Byrne may be learning from his own mistakes and those of other Irish players who have failed to make it in England. While Horgan and Maguire both find themselves as regular starters for Preston and Wycombe respectively, many other Irish players who have made the move to England’s lower divisions have failed to cut the mustard.
Byrne himself is an example of this, becoming one of the many Irish players looking to revive their career in the LOI when he joined Rovers in 2018 after being let go by Scottish outfit Kilmarnock. A teammate of his at Oldham, Patrick McEleney, only lasted 6 months in England before re-signing for Dundalk, and Graham Burke has spent the last 18 months back on loan at Rovers. Dundalk alone has seen McEleney, Patrick Hoban, Andy Boyle and David McMillan return to the club in recent seasons after failing to hit the ground running in the UK. St Pats have also seen Chris Forrester return after he seemingly found a home in Peterborough, before not making much of an impression at Aberdeen.
All these players returning isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it shows that Ireland’s domestic league is a good place for Irish players to relaunch their careers. It is, however, a damning indictment of how hard it is to make it across the Irish sea. So, is Jack Byrne right to make a more left-field move to Cyprus in search of a more fulfilling career in football? Byrne isn’t the only Irish player of late who has tried to make it by choosing the road less travelled.
Connor Ronan, a central midfielder who has played regularly for Ireland’s u21’s in the last 3 years has had spells in both Slovakia, with DAC Dunajská Streda, and Switzerland with Grasshopper. While still on the books with Wolverhampton Wanderers, it is refreshing to see an Irish player consider loan moves outside of England’s lower leagues to find a chance at first-team football. Joshua Cullen, a 24-year-old who has already made 4 Ireland appearances, has played a full 90 minutes in 7 of the last 8 games for Belgian club Anderlecht. What’s interesting about Cullen’s move to Anderlecht and Byrne’s move to APOEL is the chance to play European football, both clubs have reached the group stages of both the Champions and the Europa league regularly over the last decade. Last year was the first time Anderlecht failed to qualify for the group stages of either competition since the format was introduced to European football, and APOEL famously made the last 8 of the Champions league in 2012 and have been group stage regulars in both competitions since.
A man who knows all about APOEL’s European exploits is Cavan man Cillian Sheridan. Having spent two seasons at the club between 2013-2015, winning back-to-back league and cup doubles, Sheridan’s career shows what looking further afield might help Irish players achieve. While Sheridan only earned 3 Ireland caps he has enjoyed a successful career, scoring a league-winning goal, a goal in a cup final, and a number of important goals in APOEL’s 2014-15 European campaign - which was rewarded with trips to 3 giants of European football in Barcelona, PSG and Ajax, with Barcelona going on to win that year’s competition with their famous attacking trio of Messi, Neymar and Suarez.
Sheridan’s decision to take his chance outside of the UK has paid off and if Byrne and Cullen succeed at their respective clubs it could be the catalyst for others to try and prove themselves outside of England’s lower divisions. Of course, money talks, and the influence the English game has in Ireland has caused Irish players to want to make the move there, but careers such as Sheridan’s show that there’s more to the game than money. Most players can only dream of playing the likes of Messi and Neymar and Championship football isn’t going to give Irish players a chance to prove themselves on the European stage. On top of this moving to clubs like APOEL and Anderlecht also offers the opportunity to win league titles and trophies at a decent European level.
While the argument could be made that the Championship is a good stepping-stone to make it to the premier league, the unfortunate reality is very few LOI players have been able to make that jump. The likes of McClean, Hoolahan, Doherty and Stevens have been able to do it in recent history, however, as shown by the numbers of players returning to Ireland having failed to make an impression in the UK, this is not the majority of cases. There’s no shame in moving to England or Scotland because of the wages, (it’s hard to turn down that kind of money), but there is certainly a case for what looking at moves outside England can offer.
It’s unclear as to what effect Brexit will have on English football, with the possibility that clubs will not be able to sign international players until they’ve reached 16 years old - which will affect the number of Irish youngsters joining English academies. Regardless it is interesting to see Irish players like Byrne and Cullen taking their chances by taking the road less travelled. While it has been a difficult start for life in Cyprus for Byrne with Mick McCarthy being sacked one game into his APOEL career, Byrne certainly has the ability to make the impact Sheridan did at the same club and, hopefully, Irish football fans get to see one of their own battling it out with Europe’s elite once again.