This week Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill announced a squad of 30 players for an upcoming friendly against Turkey. As one might expect, the squad is a mixture of regulars and new faces. While some argue about the merit of such friendlies at this time of the year, it is an opportunity to allow younger players to showcase their talents on the senior international stage. These fixtures also represent a passing of the guard. The likes of John O’Shea and Glenn Whelan have been part of the Irish set up since mid-2000 but are absent from 30 man list. Whether this will continue remains to be seen but there is a good chance we have seen the last of both in a green jersey.
As Ireland will not compete at the World Cup in Russia this summer, eyes naturally turn the pending UEFA European Championship qualifiers. The draw for this takes place on the 2nd of December 2018 at the Convention Centre in Dublin. For the first time ever, Ireland will be hoping to secure qualification for the same tournament three times in a row.
While some regard qualification as a minimum requirement, others are more pragmatic about reaching the finals of major competitions. The recent World Cup play-off defeat is an example. I for one was surprised Ireland reached the play-off stage. The country was the only Pot 4 nation to make it that far in the competition. While elimination at the hands of Denmark was particularly sore given the 5-1 defeat in Dublin, one should be conscience of the quality of our own squad as well as the opposition. The table below is worth considering.
The rows 1990 to 2016 present descriptive statistics on approximate measures of player quality. These of course are only a guide and do not control for all factors. The data only applies to Irish internationals playing in England and covers the top 18 players in the squad for each of the major tournaments Ireland qualified for. Examples of missing players include Packie Bonnar (Celtic) John Aldridge (Real Sociedad) in 1990 and Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy) in 2012.
The column of data named "Cumulative League Rank of Players" is calculated based on the finishing league position of the club each player played for. For example, the squad of 1994 contained Dennis Irwin of Manchester United. Man United won the league that season so Irwin gets a value of 1. Roy Keane is also awarded a value of won. Terry Phelan played for Manchester City who finished 16th in the league. These three players therefore are 1+1+16=18. John Aldridge at the time played for Tranmere Rovers. The Merseyside club finished 6th in second tier of English football so Aldridge gets a value of 26, as there are 26 better
The 2018 row presents data on the top 18 players, called into the squad this week, that have received at least one cap to date. All 30 play in England so no omissions are reported.
For one, the Irish squad that qualified for the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan was arguably the best. A cumulative league position of the top 18 players added to just 195. That’s an average of 10.83. Effectively, this means the average player in the squad was a mid-table Premier League player. The lowest ranked player (Richard Dunne) played for the 21st best team in England (Manchester City) who had just won the Championship. The remaining 95% of the squad all played in the Premier League that season. Is it any wonder the team played its best football at a World Cup, scored more than a single goal in a game for the first time (3-0 win over Saudi Arabia) and reached the last sixteen of the competition? The team left Korea and Japan without losing a game in normal time or extra time.
Since then the trend has been downwards. The Euro Championship Finals squads of 2012 and 2016 were effectively Premier League teams just above the relegation zone (between 15th and 17th) . I would argue that qualifying for these finals was a very good achievement by both international managers.
In future it may be even more difficult. The most recent squad has a cumulative league position of 368. That’s nearly double the 2002 World Cup Squad. The highest ranked player (Jeff Hendrick) is 7th in the current Premier League table. The average player now plays for the bottom Premier League club (19.94). Just 9 (50%) of the top 18 players are Premier League players. These figures will probably improve once the qualifiers come around. Robbie Brady Darren Randolph, Stephen Ward and Richard Keogh will all make things better but even with these players included the average league position is 17.13.
Food for thought the next time you hear someone argue the team “should be doing better”.