WHILE the burgeoning Belgians are running amok down south, it’s the less illustrious Irish who have been busy taking the cash-strapped SPL by storm this season.
Of the top eight sides in Scotland’s top flight, seven are benefitting from a significant influence from the Emerald Isle, either in the dugout or on the pitch. Four teams are managed by men from across the Irish Sea, while, of the SPL’s top-11 scorers, a remarkable six are from Ireland – north or south.
Northern Irish pair Niall McGinn (Aberdeen) and Billy McKay (Inverness) have been two of the stars of the season, and, alongside Hibs’ Leigh Griffiths – a rare Scots presence on the list – are currently joint-top of the divisional scoring charts with 14 league goals apiece.
Kilmarnock, it could be argued, are the epitome of a present-day SPL team as they are managed by Londonderry’s own Kenny Shiels, while being reliant on Irish striker Cillian Sheridan as their main source of goals.
It is Hibs, however, managed by Dubliner Pat Fenlon, who have the biggest Irish contingent, with Northern Irish duo Ivan Sproule (at Hibs for the moment as he negotiates a move to Ross County) and Ryan McGivern joined in the Easter Road dressing-room by Irish pair Gary Deegan and Eoin Doyle.
As if to emphasise how in vogue it is to be Irish in the SPL these days, Bellshill-born Hibees captain James McPake even recently opted to become a Northern Ireland player by virtue of the grandparent ruling.
Such is the depth of Irish talent currently operating in Scotland, Michael O’Neill, the former Dundee United and Hibs player, felt it more beneficial to be back living in Edinburgh rather than remain in his homeland to carry out his duties as manager of the Northern Ireland national team.
“There are so many boys playing in Scotland that I moved back across to Edinburgh in August,” he told the Evening News. “It’s easier from this base to get around and see games in Scotland and England and then I commute to Northern Ireland a couple of days a week when necessary. For starters, I’ve got three players at Hibs on my doorstep in Ryan McGivern, Ivan Sproule and James McPake, so it’s perfect.”
So what does O’Neill put the Irish invasion of Scotland down to? “A lot of it, I guess, would be down to the fact that Scottish clubs no longer have the finance to go out and sign foreign players. There seems to be a lot of Irish boys going to English clubs initially and then finding their way up to Scotland. There’s are also a fair representation of Irish managers and coaches in Scotland as well, which will play a part.
“Managers know what they’re getting when the sign an Irish boy. They’re easy to deal with and have good attitudes, whereas before it was maybe the case that Scottish teams were bringing in foreigners who were more expensive, but generally no better than the Scottish or Irish boys.
“You look at guys like Billy McKay at the top of the scoring charts and it’s an easy adjustment for guys like him.
“The League of Ireland has improved a lot over the past five or ten years, so, with the SPL not attracting the big-name players that it once did, the Irish lads are able to settle in quickly to the SPL.”
O’Neill feels the Emerald Isle has become something of a breeding ground for young talent, and, although the glamour of England remains the first port of call for young Scots and Irish players, the Northern Ireland manager, who spends his time watching games at all levels across Britain and Ireland, feels the much-maligned SPL is one of the best leagues around for youngsters to learn their trade.
“Like in Scotland, there’s not a lot of money in the League of Ireland, but there are a lot of good younger players over there. Eoin Doyle is an example of that because he has come over and been able to adapt well to the SPL. The standard of the Irish League benefits dramatically from summer football, but I don’t think it’s closing the gap on the SPL.
“In fact, aside from the financial side of it, I think the SPL is in a far healthier state than people give it credit for. For me, the SPL is a much better option than League One and, having watched a lot of Championship football, I don’t think it’s of a significantly higher standard than the SPL.
“The clubs at the top of the Championship have big budgets and good players, but, on the whole, I think the SPL is getting unfairly judged. I’ve seen a number of really good games in the SPL this year.
“For example, I was at Pittodrie last week to see a fantastic game between Aberdeen and Dundee United. The Edinburgh derby, which I was at the following night, lacked a bit of quality, but it certainly wasn’t lacking in atmosphere and commitment.”
While he is a big fan of the SPL, O’Neill admits that the fact it is the Irish hogging the headlines rather than the Scots is not ideal for Craig Levein’s successor as manager of the Scottish national team.
“In the Aberdeen-Dundee United game last week, I think there were eight players of Irish descent – north or south – on the pitch. That’s a high number and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing for Scottish football, certainly from the view of the Scottish national team.
“You would probably rather there were fewer Irish players prominent in the league and a more significant proportion of Scottish boys.
“The fact it seems to be Irishmen who are generally making the biggest impression in the SPL probably explains why Craig Levein felt the need to look away from the SPL to find players eligible for the squad.
“Having said that, there were six teenagers involved at Pittodrie, which can only be good for Scottish football.”
From a Northern Irish perspective, O’Neill would have no qualms in encouraging any of his young natives to take their talents to Scotland, where he spent the bulk of his playing career.
“Players are always attracted to England first because of the money and the glamour, but the main thing for young players is to get first-team football and the SPL definitely offers that opportunity to players,” he continued. “I would never discourage my Northern Irish lads from coming to Scotland. I know how Scottish clubs treat their players and I know that they’re well coached up here, so I think the SPL is a great environment for young lads.”
As a former Hibs favourite, O’Neill is particularly pleased to see on-loan Manchester City defender McGivern prospering at Easter Road. “I’ve seen Ryan on a regular basis this season and I’m delighted with how he has done. A loan spell where he has playing week in, week out is exactly what he needed. He’s got a lot of experience under his belt for his age, particularly at international level.”
In his role as a television pundit at last week’s Edinburgh derby, O’Neill was also heartened to see McPake, one of the newest recruits to his squad, turn in another all-action display to keep Hearts out.
“It was a bonus for us when James became available. If I’m honest, the difficulty for James is that he plays in the position where we have our strongest options as we have three centre-backs who are playing week in, week out in the English Premier League in Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans and Aaron Hughes, and then there’s another few in the Championship.
“You can never have too many options, though, so hopefully James can force his way into the team.”