Monday, May 20, 2024

Promotion, play-offs and relegation battles – the highs and lows facing Irish players in English Football League

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But as the lower leagues in England reach their climax, it’s a heady mix of Irish accents and backgrounds with some celebrations already under way, some players facing a grim future, and up to 25 players from this country awaiting the outcome of play-offs across the three tiers outside of the Premier League.

While the Championship has two more weeks to run, the standard seasons in Leagues One and Two will finish next weekend.

Former team-mates are moving in opposition directions – James McClean heads up to the second tier after Wrexham’s second successive promotion, while fellow veteran Richard Keogh faces non-league football after suffering relegation with Forest Green Rovers.

Paddy Madden moves up a league with Stockport County, while another ex-international striker, Seani Maguire, drops down with Carlisle United.

And at the bottom end of League One, mass upheaval will take place relevant to this country with a worrying 18 players facing the drop in that division alone. Relegation is already confirmed for Carlisle United and Fleetwood Town, while Cheltenham Town need some last-day heroics for their five-strong Irish contingent to stay up.

Some of those demoted players are on loan from top-flight teams, so the likes of Seán Grehan (Crystal Palace), Bosun Lawal (Celtic) and Gavin Kilkenny (Bournemouth) return to their clubs with – hopefully – better days ahead.

Championship

Leicester City are on course for a Premier League return which offers a stage to uncapped Irish pair Tom Cannon and Kasey McAteer. Cannon’s international career is still on hold – at his own request – as he ponders his options with interest from his native England.

For the play-offs, Gavin Bazunu is out long-term with injury, but Ryan Manning and Will Smallbone will be involved with Southampton. West Brom also have an Ireland player ruled out for the season (Jayson Molumby) but do have on-loan star Mikey Johnston and Shane Duffy involved. Uncapped Jack Taylor will play a role for Ipswich, but Hull City need a strong finish for their Irish cohort (Aaron Connolly, Seán McLoughlin, Cyrus Christie) to make the play-offs.

At the bottom, Rotherham United have already been relegated, so Peter Kioso drops a division and it’s anxious times for chaos-magnets Birmingham City.

Scott Hogan is still there for Birmingham, but his dismal stats this season – one goal in 27 league games – sums up their plight and few would back a chaotic Birmingham to muster up some fight in the last two games and stay up.

Sheffield Wednesday are not yet out of trouble, but a four-game unbeaten run has moved them a bit closer to safety and a spell out with injury, Jeff Hendrick has played a role, on and off the field. On loan to the Owls from Newcastle United, his Newcastle deal is up at the end of the season, so Hendrick (32) will be on the move but possibly with the feat of keeping Wednesday in the division.

Blackburn Rovers are not mathematically safe and need a win tomorrow to avoid relegation formally, so dropping a league would definitely mean a summer exit for top scorer Sammie Szmodics.

Carlisle United’s Sean Maguire. Photo: Pete Norton/Getty Images

League One

Portsmouth have wrapped up the title as well as promotion. That’s a merited reward for Galwegian Conor Shaughnessy, who played in all but one of their games, and uncapped 30-somethings Joe Rafferty and Sean Raggett. Pompey’s success also offers a fresh start next term for Anthony Scully, who has been out since January due to injury.

It would take a massive collapse on the final day of the regular season tomorrow for Derby County to miss out on automatic promotion and enter the playoffs, where former internationals Conor Hourihane and James Collins (both 33) contributed (Collins is the Rams’ top scorer) and U-21 cap Eiran Cashin was almost an ever-present.

The play-off picture for League One is close to completion, with a strong Irish presence, assuming Lincoln City (Paudie O’Connor, Danny Mandroiu, Dylan Duffy, Seán Roughan and Jack Moylan) and Barnsley (Conor Grant, Barry Cotter, Corey O’Keeffe and Luca Connell) make it by not throwing it away tomorrow. However, Barnsley are suffering a crisis of confidence and, off the back of just one win in seven, sacked their manager last week.

Blackpool could still make it into the play-offs, where one-cap wonder CJ Hamilton may be involved, but Andy Lyons is ruled out for the rest of the season.

At the other end in League One much of the business is wrapped up as Carlisle United, Port Vale and Fleetwood Town are already relegated and Cheltenham looking likely to join them. That has implications for Irish players.

At Carlisle, Seani Maguire now enters an uneasy phase his career as he’s out of contract after a difficult season where he scored just twice in 35 games. JJ Kayode (Rotherham) and Seán Grehan (Crystal Palace) return to their clubs after testing loan spells, but Georgie Kelly will aim to deliver for Carlisle in League Two next season as he has three years left on his deal.

Fleetwood’s drop to the fourth tier is a disaster for their Irish contingent. Gavin Kilkenny (Bournemouth) and Bosun Lawal (Celtic) have their futures secure as they go back to their parent clubs following loans. However for Ronan Coughlan, Ryan Graydon, David Harrington, Tommy Lonergan, Promise Omochere and Cian Hayes, ex-LOI players Phoenix Patterson and Junior Quitirna, and Maleace Asamoah and Harvey Macadam (both currently on loan to feeder club Waterford from Fleetwood), this is a worrying slide down a division.

Cheltenham won on Tuesday night to keep alive their survival hopes but now need to win (away to ninth-placed Stevenage) and hope that Burton lose or draw at Fleetwood. Relegation would have career implications for defender Seán Long, midfielders Liam Kinsella, Greg Sloggett and Will Ferry, and forward Aidan Keena.

Derby County’s James Collins. Photo: Getty Images

League Two

Most of the business in League Two is done, with promotion guaranteed for 10 Irishmen. Dubliners Neil Byrne (31) and captain Paddy Madden (34) were key in Stockport County’s success. Madden is their second-top scorer with 17 goals.

Wrexham’s successful season had a strong Irish accent, from a regional spread as James McClean (Derry), Eoghan O’Connell (Cork), Anthony Forde (Limerick) and Tom O’Connor (Wexford/Kilkenny) all played. As did former U-21 cap Liam McAlinden, and Sligo native Luke McNicholas was back-up ’keeper. McClean (35) is out of contract but is almost certain to be offered a new deal.

Mansfield Town are back up to the third tier thanks in no small part to veterans Stephen Quinn (38) and Stephen McLaughlin (33). Both may opt to go again next term, with Town boss Nigel Clough planning talks with Quinn this week.

MK Dons, for whom ex-Bohemians men Warren O’Hora and ’keeper Michael Kelly were key players (Dawson Devoy and Darragh Burns are not involved, both out on loan), are guaranteed a place in the play-offs. It’s been a remarkable story for Kelly (26), who faced an uncertain fate last summer. Part of the Carlisle United squad promoted last season, Kelly was let go and had a three-month spell without a club before MK Dons called and he has excelled in recent weeks, behind a defence marshalled by the impressive O’Hora.

Barrow (Rory Feely, Sam Foley and Niall Canavan) and Doncaster (Ian Lawlor) are in the play-off places now. But ahead of the season finale, Walsall (Oisín McEntee and loanees David Okagbue and Ross Tierney) and Bradford City (Ciarán Kelly, Calum Kavanagh, Tyreik Wright) are hoping to sneak in if Barrow mess up. If Walsall go up, expect permanent deals for the impressive St Kevin’s old boys Okagbue and Tierney, both on loan.

They are all hoping to get out of League Two and into League One, but players making the move the other way, from League Two into non-league football.

Forest Green Rovers duo of Dundalk native Emmanuel Osadebe and ex-international Richard Keogh are both on their way down. Keogh will be 38 at the start of next season and may now opt to hang up the boots.

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