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'I wasn't ready for the Premier League' - The fall and rise of the ‘Irish Messi’

The 26-year-old midfielder chats to The42 about leaving Blackburn as a youngster and growing up in the Football League.

Judge has been included in recent Ireland squads, though he has yet to win a cap at senior level.
Judge has been included in recent Ireland squads, though he has yet to win a cap at senior level.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

ALAN JUDGE MIGHT just be the most underrated Irish footballer in England right now.

Of late, Judge seems to be at the heart of Brentford’s reversal of fortune under new boss Lee Carsley.

The Championship club had a turbulent start to the season. Even though most agreed that they overachieved last year, manager Mark Warburton was given the boot during the summer and replaced by Dutch coach Marinus Dijkhuizen.

However, following a disappointing start to the season, with the club hovering near the relegation zone, Dijkhuizen was dismissed just four months after taking over.

Ex-Ireland international, Lee Carsley, has since taken charge until the end of the current campaign. Despite insisting he doesn’t want the job on a permanent basis, Carsley has presided over an excellent run of form that has seen the Bees win their last four successive league matches.

It began with Judge — a player affectionately nicknamed the ‘Irish Messi’ after a string of impressive goals and performances — claiming a brace against Rotherham, before the 26-year-old registered an assist in the 2-0 win over Wolves.

Judge then got another goal and two assists in the 3-0 victory against Charlton, before providing another assist in Friday’s 1-0 victory — the first time they have beaten local rivals QPR in 50 years (a game that took place after this interview was conducted).

Judge also made the revised 27-man Ireland squad to face Germany and Poland last month, while he also was named in the most recent provisional squad for the upcoming Euro 2016 play-off games against Bosnia.

In short, the last few weeks could hardly have gone much better for the Dublin-born ex-St Joseph’s Boys youngster, who feels Brentford have turned a corner since Carsley took charge, with the club now just four points off the play-off spots in 11th.

Source: Brentford Football Club/YouTube

(Judge scores a brace against Rotherham)

“Winning three games in the last week helps,” he tells The42. “Picking up nine points was great. Lee’s come in and steadied the ship.

“The players respect him. He’s played at a high level and is a former Irish international. He’s just really relaxed and we know who we’re listening to now. There were a lot of changes in the summer, a lot of new people, but now we know that Lee’s completely in charge. So he’s the one to listen to.”

Having formed a close relationship with Warburton, Judge says his departure and the subsequent alterations at the club made life at Griffin Park somewhat difficult for a period.

“I was a bit unsettled with all the changes at the start of the season,” he admits. “I played for Mark Warburton and he was great for me. I was just a bit unsure what was going to happen, but in the last two weeks, I’ve settled down really well and I’m focused and enjoying my football again.

“The three wins in the last week have helped us massively and got us up to mid-table. We know we’re not out of trouble yet. Obviously, there’s a long season to go, but we have to make sure we perform every week, and stay well clear of the relegation zone, while trying to make a push for the play-offs.”

Judge has been played in a variety of positions, including winger, defensive midfielder and more recently, behind the striker. His performances this season have seen him linked with Premier League clubs, including Swansea and Bournemouth, and despite talk of a new contract at the beginning of the campaign, nothing has been signed yet.

Nevertheless, Judge insists he is happy at Brentford, and he has certainly backed up these words with his recent performances.

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(Judge provides an assist against Charlton)

One player the former Irish underage international has been compared to is Wes Hoolahan. Like Judge, Hoolahan spent a considerable portion of his early career in the lower tier leagues in English football, however, he has since experienced life in the Premier League and at 33, is arguably playing the best football of his career, as he finds himself near the summit of the top flight’s assist charts for this season.

And Judge, unsurprisingly, is an admirer of Hoolahan.

“I very much enjoy watching Wes play football,” he says. “He’s a creative player. He always wants to go forward and make things happen. I always find it exciting when I watch that. I also really enjoyed training with him with Ireland.”

Moreover, just as Hoolahan was reportedly rejected at a young age by an unnamed Premier League club for being ‘too small,’ Judge was let go by Blackburn (who were a top-flight team at the time) after coming through the Academy at Ewood Park.

Did Judge feel hard done by, given that he was never given a chance to play regular Premier League football for Rovers?

“To be honest, I didn’t think I was ready,” he says. “I went down to the lower leagues, which was probably right (for me). I needed to go and play against six foot six centre-halves and let them kick me around a bit. You’ve got to get used to the physicality of the football and playing Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday every week. It can be quite hard.

“I don’t feel hard done by in anyway. I loved going out and playing football, so I’ve never regretted in anyway what has happened.”

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(Judge scores against Charlton)

Following a fruitful loan spell there, Judge joined Notts County permanently in 2011. His stellar performances saw him claim the Players’ Player of the Year and Fans’ Player of the Year accolades for the 2011–12 season, while he was named in the League One PFA Team of the Year the following season.

His success led to a second spell at Blackburn in 2013, who were by that stage a Championship club. However, despite making a couple of first-team appearances, his subsequent stint at the club was similarly disappointing. Within six months, Judge had joined Brentford on loan, and after scoring the goal that promoted them to the Championship, he then signed with the Bees permanently.

In an interview with The42 recently, Niall Quinn suggested that many young Irish players would be better off plying their trade at a lower league team rather than going through the notoriously difficult route of academy football at a top-tier club. Having experienced both situations, would Judge agree with Quinn’s assessment?

“I would agree (to an extent), but I would also say that it’s great for a young player to play in an English Academy, because of the coaches and the football you get taught — and obviously, we don’t have many academies back in Ireland. Academy football was such a big development, so I don’t regret going over when I did at 15.

“But regular football gets you ready for what’s to come in the next few years.”

On a related note, as someone with considerable technical ability and an eye for a defence-splitting pass, Judge is far from a stereotypical Irish footballer? Many have suggested in the past that creative players tend to get overlooked by the Irish and British systems all too often, yet Judge says he was never prevented from playing the way he does.

“Wherever I’ve been, I’ve always been encouraged to play football,” he says. “I would say I’ve never been held back or told not to do something.

“I think we do produce a few technical players — but in the Irish team, we’re such hard-working people that I think that just comes natural to us.”

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(Judge provides the cross for the only goal in Brentford’s historic win over QPR on Friday)

Judge has also picked up some useful advice from his father, Dermot, who captained Bray Wanderers to an FAI Cup final success in 1990, and also had stints with Shamrock Rovers and Fulham

“He played for Fulham when he was younger and then came back for family reasons. He’s been a big influence, as has my whole family. Whenever I’ve needed to get to football sessions, when I was younger, my mother and father would make sure I got there, so they’ve been a massive part of my football life.”

And while his father returned to Ireland, and many Irish footballers complain about feeling homesick after moving to England in their teens, Judge never experienced such difficulties.

“To be honest, I knew that it was what I wanted to do, and I never thought of anything else. So for me, it was very easy.”

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Paul Fennessy

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