He was a sub for an already-relegated side who lost 4-0 at home, so the Premier League debut last weekend for Norwich City’s Irish youth cap Tony Springett didn’t really make waves in the football world.
ut when the winger (19) came on for the second half – his side already 3-0 down against West Ham – it was significant, and face-saving, from an Irish point of view. By coming on, the teenager became the 15th player eligible for the Republic to play in the Premier League this season, a welcome boost: to have just 14 players in that league across a season would have been an all-time low in three decades of Premier League football.
The number is significant, as 14 is also the total of Irish players loaned out by Premier League clubs this season.
Jim Crawford, manager of the Ireland U-21s, hopes to work with Springett, previously capped twice in friendly games at U-18 level, in the next qualifying campaign.
One sub appearance won’t be enough for the Norwich man to get into the current squad which has three key Euro qualifiers on the horizon next month, with what Crawford calls a potential “winner-takes-all” game away to Italy on June 14. Group games at home to Bosnia (June 3) and Montenegro (June 6) follow, and the Irish manager hopes the home crowd will react by packing out Tallaght Stadium.
Crawford obviously welcomes the arrival of another Irishman on the Premier League stage, confirming that the English-born Springett is “very much in the Irish fold”.
But that success for Springett is diluted by the fact that such progress is so rare.
“It’s far more difficult now than when I was a player at Newcastle. It was difficult for the likes of me then but now it’s harder than it’s ever been,” says Crawford as he looks at the impact of Irishmen in the top flight.
“The gap is massive now. Even going from League One to the Championship now is a huge gap. You can go from League Two to League One, but stepping up to the Championship is massive. I see that going to games in the UK all the time, so the step up to the Premier League is even bigger.”
A Premier League debut this season for Evan Ferguson, at the age of 17, was a vote of confidence in him from Brighton, and a loan spell at their feeder club in Belgium is probably the next step in his career.
Troy Parrott (Spurs/MK Dons), Gavin Bazunu (Manchester City/Portsmouth) and Conor Coventry (West Ham/MK Dons) can be proud of their output on loan this season, but forcing their way into the plans of their parent clubs next term is a challenge.
The prospect of fellow Irish loanees like Tyreik Wright (Aston Villa), Oisín McEntee (Newcastle) and Mipo Odubeko (West Ham) becoming Premier League players next term looks shakier.
Luca Connell is three years into a four-year deal with Celtic and has never been as far away from their first team, having made an ill-fated move from Bolton.
Asked to train with the senior Ireland squad by Mick McCarthy in 2019, now he can’t make the Irish U-21 panel, let alone the senior team.
With the gap so big now at Premier League level, Crawford needs those players to make the right calls. One of those prospects with a choice to make is current U-21 cap Ollie O’Neill. Yet to play for Championship winners Fulham but highly rated there, he’s out of contract. They want to re-sign him, but Premier League clubs, like Spurs, are sniffing.
“Fulham are desperate to keep Ollie, and rightly so as he’s an immense talent. At the minute he is between clubs, I know a few clubs are interested in him, my advice to him was to think long and hard about it; if he does leave he has to go to the right club and the right culture for him as a player,” says Crawford.
“I know from experience, when I went to Newcastle United (1995) it was a huge club, I should have got out of there earlier than I did. I needed someone to tell me that I had David Batty, Rob Lee, Lee Clark ahead of me. I wasn’t going to get into the first team ahead of them.
“They all want to play first-team football but the likes of Ollie, we need to influence them as best we can, these are potential senior international players for Ireland. We don’t want to lose out as they sign for the wrong club, and fall out of love with football in the wrong environment.”
A lesson Irish football badly needs its young stars to learn.
* Tickets for Ireland U-21s v Bosnia (Friday, June 3) and Montenegro (Monday, June 6) are available on Ticketmaster.ie