INPHO/Cathal Noonan
Willie Casey

“This time next year...” - 11 Irish stars to watch in 2011

Kevin Coleman runs the rule over those hoping to have a big 12 months.

1. Willie Casey: Born and raised in the heart of Limerick city, Willie emerged on the top of the Irish sporting pyramid earlier this year when he defeated Dubliner Paulie Hyland for the WBA European Super Bantamweight title.

It has been a stunning rise for the 29-year-old, making just 11 appearances in the ring to date and so far remaining unbeaten.

‘Big Bang’ has been handed the chance to win the WBO title, with a fight against Guillermo Rigondeaux scheduled for March. Let’s get behind him and hope Willie can bring yet another world title back to Ireland.

2. Paul Galvin: The 2010 season was a write-off for the Kerry footballer as soon as the ‘gouging’ incident rapped him with an eight-week suspension, followed by a succession of niggling injuries.

Galvin has been in the public eye since however, making an unusual appearance on the Late Late Show, before a documentary illustrating his year out was one of the more talked-about television programmes to make the festive listing on RTÉ.

Looking ahead, the Finuge man is determined to set things straight on the field and expect a rewind to the days of the 2009 championship campaign, as Galvin led his county to All-Ireland gold and himself to a Player of the Year award.

3. Seamus Coleman: Donegal’s own has yet to start an international game for the Republic of Ireland, but that will change in 2011 unless Il Trap continues to overlook the wing back making waves in the Premier League this season.

Coleman had a fantastic 2010, and the impact he had in Blackpool’s play-off winning surge is often forgotten. Now back at Goodison Park, the 22-year-old is starting regularly under David Moyes and his surging runs from deep along their right hand side are almost as common as a Tim Cahill header so far this campaign.

Coleman has gone from strength to strength in 2010, and it hasn’t been a bad start to 2011 – making two starts and scoring one goal.

4. Nicolas Roche: The son of the former Grand Tour winner Stephen is Ireland’s biggest cycling talent. After setting a strong platform in 2010 – particularly in the Tour de France last summer, finishing 15th – Roche is on track for an even bigger 2011 amongst cycling’s elite.

5. Luke Fitzgerald: The Leinster winger’s 2010 season was marred by injury, missing a bulk of the November series and a string of games for his province in the Heineken Cup and the Magners League.

At just 23-years-of-age, Luke has been a shining light for Irish rugby for a number of years, already with sixteen international caps under his belt, not to mention a call-up to the British and Irish Lions series in 2009.

This year is a big year for international and club rugby in Ireland, with the World Cup just around the corner in New Zealand, Munster and Leinster sitting 1st and 3rd respectively in the Magners League, plus all three provinces competing in the Heineken Cup set to progress past the pools stage. Let’s hope Luke can stay fit and firing for a big year of rugby.

6. Ciaran Clark: 2010 was a mixed bag for Aston Villa’s Irish contingent. Richard Dunne has had a season to forget so far, but the emergence of Clark in the Villa defence has been a glimmer of light in an otherwise gloomy season under Gerard Houllier. Born in Harrow, England, Clark has pledged for the Irish national team – declaring his ambition to follow many English-born footballers who became Irish international legends.

Clark has already been called up to an Irish squad, for the friendly against Norway last October, but didn’t make an appearance. The 21-year-old has played 11 times for the Villa senior team to date, most of which came this season and out of his natural centre back position, scoring three goals – including this header in the 91st minute against Chelsea.

7. Noel McGrath: It wasn’t a bad 2010 for the Loughmore native, as he stood a leading figure in Tipperary’s All-Ireland winning campaign. At just 20-year-of-age, McGrath already has a number of honours under belt, including two All Star awards and a Munster Championship from 2009, plus a collection of trophies from his spells in the Tipperary minor and U21 panels.

Last year was an unforgettable year for everyone involved with Tipperary, making a surprising burst for the All-Ireland title despite sneaking their way through the back-door having been knocked out of the Munster Championships at the hands of Cork.

In a young panel, Noel is one of the biggest talents to come out of the Premier County, and continues to gain plaudits nationally for his dynamic performances. Expect another tremendous year for Noel and his Tipp teammates.

8. Shane Dooley: It was a year dominated by Kilkenny, Tipperary and the teams who made it into the later stages of the All-Ireland race, but one man who was considered an All Star candidate despite finishing his season in the earlier rounds was Shane Dooley.

The forward from Tullamore was a dynamite, and Offaly were unlucky not to get past Galway around by the back door in a match replay. Expect more big scores and laser-accurate free taking from Doolry in the season ahead, and maybe himself and Offaly can go one better in their goals.

9. Jonny Sexton: Alright, this is an obvious selection – but all eyes will be on the battle of the kickers going into the summer’s World Cup, and at the moment it looks like the Leinster number 10 will come out on top over his Munster counterpart.

Sexton has been playing out of skin for Leinster, and after missing the beginning of the season has returned to inspire Leinster to some big victories, not to mention one over Munster and his twenty-five point haul in the win against Saracens. It is suggested by many that the 25-year-old is the best fly-half in Europe right now – and Ireland will be hoping his sterling form will take his country to the top in New Zealand.

10. Rory McIlroy: Even more obvious than the last? OK, so this is probably the most predictable inclusion in this article – but it’s Rory McIlroy! After an unforgettable year, including wins in the Dubai Desert and Quail Hollow championships, Rory Mac is on course for an even bigger 2011.

11. Owen Coyle: This might be from left-field, but back in 1994 the former Burnley manager made a single appearance for the Republic of Ireland, qualifying through his family descent, and thus qualifies as an Irish sportsperson to watch in 2011.

After taking Burnley up from the depths of the Football League Championship into the Premier League, Coyle moved to the Reebok Stadium and has managed Bolton to an awesome season, sitting seventh in the league and playing some fantastic football. Expect big things from Coyle’s Bolton until he decides to move on to pastures new.

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