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12 Irish players who could have a big impact in the Championship this season

The English second tier resumes on Friday and we look at some of the individuals who could have a big say on its outcome.

N.B. We’ve restricted it to one player per team.

1. Sean Maguire (Preston)

Preston North End v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship - Deepdale Source: Richard Sellers

After his move from Cork City, Maguire had an encouraging debut season with Preston. The 24-year-old attacker was hampered by a hamstring injury for a considerable portion of the campaign, but nonetheless established himself as an important player at the Championship side, scoring 10 goals in 25 appearances. Preston finished just two points off the play-off spots last season, and they will hope to build on those promising signs this campaign. With several Irish players including Maguire, Graham Burke and Alan Browne at the club, it would certainly be no bad thing for football on this side of the water if they were promoted to the Premier League.

2. Darren Randolph (Middlesbrough)

Middlesbrough v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship - Riverside Stadium Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Having left West Ham in search of first-team football at the end of the 2016-17 campaign, Randolph has impressed since joining Middlesbrough. The 31-year-old Bray native has been a virtual ever-present in nets since joining Boro, featuring 50 times last season as they endured the heartbreak of a play-off semi-final loss to Aston Villa. Paddy McNair and Aden Flint have been recruited to help shore up Tony Pulis side’s defence, as they aim to improve on last year’s fifth-place finish.

3. John Egan (Sheffield United)

Queens Park Rangers v Brentford - Sky Bet Championship - Loftus Road Source: PA Archive/PA Images

With John O’Shea’s international retirement and Ciaran Clark’s future at Newcastle uncertain, there could potentially be a centre-back slot up for grabs in the Irish team. Egan is among the candidates. The 25-year-old recently completed a move to Sheffield United from Brentford, having captained the latter and made 34 appearances for them last season. The Blades, who also have Irish internationals Enda Stevens and David McGoldrick within their ranks, had a superb start to last season, and even found themselves top in November. However, their challenge ultimately faded disappointingly and they finished the season 10th. With the grit likely to be provided by the recruitment of Egan, they will hope to last the distance this time around.

4. Darragh Lenihan (Blackburn)

Blackburn Rovers v Liverpool - Pre Season Friendly - Ewood Park Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Lenihan missed a good chunk of last season, fracturing his metatarsal on the opening day of the campaign. Nonetheless he returned in February and helped Blackburn secure their place in the Championship, as they finished second in League One. The 24-year-old Meath native won his first senior Ireland cap against USA back in June and he could be an important player for the Boys in Green for years to come, particularly if he can help Blackburn enjoy a solid first season back in the Championship.

5. Alan Judge (Brentford)

Brentford v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Sky Bet Championship - Griffin Park Source: EMPICS Sport

It’s been a frustrating two years for Alan Judge. The Dubliner was a nominee for Championship Player of the Year and was contributing countless goals and assists for Brentford, before a broken leg in April 2016 put paid to his hopes of making Ireland’s squad for Euro 2016 and ensured a proposed move to Newcastle fell through. Since then, the 29-year-old’s recovery has been gradual. Following a total of 637 days out injured — a period in which he admits to having contemplated quitting the game — he featured 13 times for Brentford last season, with all but three of those appearances coming from the bench. The attacking midfielder did receive a boost in the form of a first goal for his country against the USA, and will have no doubt been working hard over the summer to build back up his fitness. Whether he can recapture the form of two years ago remains to be seen, but this feels like the first season where Judge will get a proper opportunity, with last year more about rediscovering match sharpness after so long out of the game.

6. Conor Hourihane (Aston Villa)

Aston Villa v Reading - Sky Bet Championship - Villa Park Source: Tim Goode

Ireland are not blessed with an abundance of goalscoring midfielders, but Conor Hourihane is one exception. The Cork native, who started his career at Sunderland, managed 11 goals in 46 appearances last season for a Villa side that fell just short in their bid for promotion. Steve Bruce is a manager who has had success before in getting sides out of the Championship, and it was recently confirmed that the former Manchester United player would be staying on as manager. With Hourihane approaching his prime at 27, he will be hoping to help his side go one better than last year.

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7. Richard Keogh (Derby)

Derby County v Southampton - Pre Season Friendly - Pride Park Source: Anthony Devlin

The 31-year-old centre-back has established himself as part of the furniture with Derby at this stage, having made more than 200 appearances for the club. New boss Frank Lampard won virtually everything as a player, but whether he can emulate those successes in management is uncertain. Keogh, who is likely to play alongside John Terry at the back, will certainly hope so. He has played in every division in the Football League over the course of his career, but time is running out for the Irish international to get a crack at the Premier League.

8. James McClean (Stoke)

Stoke City v Wolverhampton Wanderers - Pre Season Friendly - Bet365 Stadium Source: Nick Potts

Stoke are most bookies’ favourites to win the Championship, and the addition of James McClean is a boost to their chances. The 29-year-old Derry native has plenty of Premier League experience and has developed into a key player for Ireland in recent seasons. He had a disappointing campaign with West Brom last year, as he was in and out of a team that finished bottom of the Premier League, but will hope for a far more fruitful coming year. The Potters, who have appointed Gary Rowett as their manager for the new season, have also recruited Tom Ince (£10 million from Huddersfield), Oghenekaro Etebo (£6.35 million from Feirense) and Adam Federici (undisclosed from Bournemouth) putting those parachute payments to good use as they bid to return to the Premier League at the first attempt.

9. David Meyler (Reading)

Hull City v Brentford - Sky Bet Championship - KCOM Stadium Source: EMPICS Sport

Meyler helped Hull gain promotion to the Premier League in the 2012-13 season and has over 100 top-flight appearances under his belt. The 29-year-old midfielder was not happy with how his subsequent exit from the Tigers was handled, and will hope to boost a Reading side that finished just three points above the Championship relegation zone last season. The Cork native has impressed in Ireland’s final few World Cup qualifiers and if he can replicate those performances at club level, the Royals are likely to an enjoy an improved campaign this year.

10. Keiren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday)

Sheffield Wednesday v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship - Hillsborough Source: EMPICS Sport

Routinely described as one of the best goalkeepers in the Championship, Westwood has been linked with moves to both Stoke, Cardiff and West Brom recently. Sheffield Wednesday, who finished a disappointing 15th last season having qualified for the play-offs the year before, struggled without the 33-year-old for the second half of the campaign. A groin injury means he has not played for the Owls in the league since December, and keeping him fit and on the books will likely be crucial if they are to pose a threat to the top teams over the next few months.

11. Ryan Manning (QPR)

Newcastle United v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship - St James' Park Source: PA Archive/PA Images

A key player for Ireland U21s, Manning broke into the QPR first team the season before last. The Galway native probably didn’t play as much as he would have liked last year, but still registered 22 appearances and now has a full season in the Championship under his belt. The midfielder is an excellent striker of the ball, and can be lethal from set pieces. QPR finished a disappointing 16th last season, with Ian Holloway replaced by Steve McClaren in the off-season. Provided the former England boss rates Manning as highly as his predecessor, it could be a big year for the 22-year-old. He has yet to be capped at senior level by the Boys in Green, but the former Galway United player’s creativity could potentially be a major asset to Martin O’Neill’s side.

12. Callum O’Dowda (Bristol City)

Sheffield Wednesday v Bristol City - Sky Bet Championship - Hillsborough Source: EMPICS Sport

Another exciting young talent who had a stop-start season last year owing to injury. The 23-year-old Kidlington-born attacking midfielder appeared 28 times for Bristol City, but an ankle injury saw him miss four months of the campaign. He caught the eye in Ireland’s summer friendlies, with his willingness to take players on and do something different a refreshing departure from the norm. Bristol City, meanwhile, were another side who looked in contention for promotion at one point in 2017-18 campaign, but tapered off and finished 11th ultimately. However, a famous League Cup win over Man United last December highlighted their potential as a team.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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