When the editor dropped me a line and asked me to do a bit about Ireland, I got a little bit excited as you do, Guinness, Dublin, Jamesons, Croke Park. Then I realised he actually meant Irish players. I pondered what qualifications do I have for this? My father’s side came from Norfolk, and my mother’s from Kent (with a wee bit of Scotland a few generations back!), so in the eyes of Jack Charlton, that makes me perfect (little 90s Irish squad selection joke there…..).
Last season we had Cox, Quinn and McShane. Delve into the more recent past and you get the Hunt boys, Doyle, Long, Kelly, Pearce, Bennett, Harte, and if you go further back in time you find Houghton and Maybury. So what can we discern from this? What you can gain from our recent history with Irish internationals, is that there is no one way to trace or record how they arrive at our club. Some have arrived in the twilight of their career, while others we developed ourselves, while yet more have arrived mid career. Maybe a couple of comparisons would help??
When you consider the players that arrived in the twilight of their career, the two that stand out are Ray Houghton and Ian Harte. Both had long careers with the Republic’s international squad (73 caps and 63 caps respectively). Houghton arrived as Bullivant took over the club, a season that promised much but only delivered relegation. A sad, but perhaps very Reading way, of saying goodbye to Elm Park. He stayed for the first season at the Madstad, playing over 40 times for the Royals with a solitary goal again Manchester City. Houghton was a busy player, but this was a very poor Reading team. Harte, on other hand, came on an out of the blue transfer from Carlisle. While there was no doubting his pedigree, there was a perception that he was past it, and was too slow to be any good. How wrong were we? He made the PFA Team of the Year two years running in the Championship, and provided a significant contribution to Reading’s second promotion to the Premier League. It’s a bit sad to think that both players left the Madstad off the back of relegation seasons, maybe a thought to ponder if we look at ‘veteran’ Irish free transfers in the summer??!!
Next up you have the players we have go in young and looked to develop. This is a field we have dabbled in a lot over recent years. Getting youth players in for free or a pittance, in the hope you can unearth a gem is something many clubs have do, if not to create millions, then to at least add decent players to your squad. This will always be a bit of a punt, hit or miss. The hit that stands out here, more than any is Shane Long. A Gaelic footballer and Hurler, with not much football pedigree, who arrived as part of the Doyle deal (yes, I know I could say Kevin, but he virtually went straight into the first team didn’t he?). Shane spent a few years developing, before really coming to the forefront when Doyle left. A number of seasons leading the line led to full Irish caps and a big money onwards to West Brom. Compare this with the recently released Pierce Sweeney. A centre back who arrived with a lot of promise in 2012, he was the captain of the U21 team that won the Premier League Cup in 2014, but somehow he never seemed to kick on from being on the fringes of the first team in Nigel Adkins time, to becoming an actual first teamer. He has watched Jake Cooper bypass him and become a first-team regular. It really was probably not a surprise that he was released this summer.
Finally we come to established players we’ve bought in. Two you could look at here are Noel Hunt and Simon Cox. What makes Cox different is that he was a youth player for Reading, before making his career with Swindon, West Brom and Forest before coming back. After a goal spurt in his opening games, Cox went on a barren run of form that continued through a loan spell at Bristol City, and to his return to Reading. Having arrived with the image as something of a goalscorer (to be honest I think this was mainly from his Swindon period!!), we all wished him well as a local boy playing for the team, and alas, it did not work out in the end, with Cox also leaving this summer. Hunt, on the other hand, was a bit of a dark horse to me. I must admit I did wonder, initially, if we were signing him to keep Stephen happy. Glad to say I was proved wrong. Hunt was never prolific, but he was a willing workhorse for whoever he played alongside, and his constant running meant that defences could never be comfortable when he was around. We could probably have done with him still around if we’re honest!!!
Ultimately, there is no rhyme or reason, to whether a player will be a success for your club, whatever stage of their career they may join at.
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