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The man providing additional Irish interest in the Europa League from an unlikely source

Dubliner Graham Carey has helped CSKA Sofia reach the group stages for the first time in a decade.

Updated Oct 22nd 2020, 3:00 PM

liverpool-v-plymouth-argyle-emirates-fa-cup-third-round-anfield Graham Carey tangles with Divock Origi while playing for Plymouth Argyle against Liverpool in a 2017 FA Cup tie. Source: Martin Rickett

WHEN THE GROUP stages of the Europa League begin this evening, Irish interest will be sustained by Dundalk, Tottenham Hotspur’s Matt Doherty and Shane Duffy at Celtic.

But it doesn’t end there.

At the Vasil Levski Stadium, where Ireland and Bulgaria played out a 1-1 draw last month, the CSKA Sofia side that will take on Romanian outfit CFR Cluj is likely to contain former Irish U21 international Graham Carey.

CSKA have advanced to the group stages of a European competition for the first time in 10 years, having caused a considerable upset by recording a 3-1 win against Basel in Switzerland earlier this month in the play-off round.

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Carey has played 33 times for the Bulgarian club since joining them on a two-year deal in the summer of 2019. The move brought an end to a four-season spell at Plymouth Argyle, where he’s still revered after scoring 49 goals and assisting 58 more while making 197 appearances.

A creative, left-footed midfielder who’s noted for his set-piece deliveries, the 31-year-old Dubliner has also assembled an impressive collection of long-range strikes. 

“You will go a long way to come across a better left foot than Graham’s,” his former Plymouth team-mate Gary Teale has said. “In a tight game, if you are giving someone like that an opportunity, then that can be the difference.”

Carey, who also scored in CSKA’s 2-0 win over BATE Borisov en route to the group stages, actually got a taste of the Europa League back in 2009, when he made his one and only appearance for Celtic in a 3-3 draw with Rapid Vienna.

He joined the Glasgow giants at the age of 16, but first-team opportunities were scarce. A loan move back home to Bohemians was followed by spells at Huddersfield Town, St Mirren and Ross County. Carey was a League of Ireland Premier Division winner at Bohs under Pat Fenlon, before helping St Mirren to clinch the Scottish League Cup.

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With 126 games in the Scottish top flight under his belt, he moved to Plymouth in 2015 and marked his first campaign with the League Two club by winning their Player of the Season award.

Source: SPFL/YouTube

Carey continued to impress after helping the Pilgrims to promotion two years later. He was named in the League One Team of the Season on the back of a personal contribution that amounted to 14 goals and 13 assists, as his side narrowly missed out on a play-off place in their bid to reach the Championship.

“He has been terrific ever since I have taken him to the football club,” Derek Adams – the manager who signed him at Plymouth – said in 2018. “He has played in a variety of roles for us and been accomplished in them all.”

Although uncapped at senior level, Carey featured for Ireland up to the U21 grade. His debut came in a 1-1 draw in a 2009 friendly at Turner’s Cross against a Germany team that included Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng and Sami Khedira.

danny-murphy-and-graham-carey Under pressure from Danny Murphy during a 2009 friendly between Celtic and Cork City. Source: Neil Danton/INPHO

He took his career off the beaten track last year by signing for the most successful club in Bulgaria, who have been champions on 31 occasions. However, CSKA’s most recent title came in 2008, with 10-in-a-row winners Ludogorets Razgrad now the dominant force.

Carey came close to helping CSKA win their 21st Bulgarian Cup – and first since 2016 – in July. After a goalless 120 minutes, he converted from the penalty spot but Lokomotiv Plovdiv ran out 5-3 winners in the shootout.

Currently sitting in fourth place in the Bulgarian First League with nine games played, CSKA now turn their attentions to the Europa League. In addition to Cluj, Carey and his team-mates will come up against Roma and Young Boys in Group A.

About the author:

Paul Dollery

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