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The contrasting fortunes of those making Preston the most Irish club in England

Andy Boyle and Kevin O’Connor are on their way out.

Image: PA Images

THERE ARE MYRIAD gauges of Irish football’s slow drift to mediocrity over the last 20-odd years, and a reliable one is the identity of The Most Irish Club in England. 

In the mid-1990s, Aston Villa flitted around the upper reaches of the Premier League with Staunton, McGrath, Houghton and Townsend, hence the profusion of miserable Aston Villa fans in Ireland today. 

Reading had the title for a brief spell under Steve Coppell, until SundIreland came to the party with Irish representation at all levels. It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since we had the extravagance of watching them struggle to stay in the Premier League.

Heady days. 

Today, the undisputed claim to the crown is Preston North End’s, a club currently eighteenth in England’s second tier. 

Mick McCarthy has been in contact with the Irish contingent at Deepdale, and such is the size of the crew it might have been in his best interests to chat to them all on a conference call. 

There are seven in all; eight if you include underage goalkeeper Jimmy Corcoran who is yet to make his first-team breakthrough. 

It was larger prior to Daryl Horgan’s transfer to Hibs in August, and it is set to be further winnowed before the January transfer window ends.

Centre-back Andy Boyle, who joined from Dundalk at the same time as Horgan, is on his way out. 

He hasn’t played for Preston since October 2017 and spent the latter half of last season on loan at Doncaster Rovers, for whom he made just five league appearances. This season has been spent on loan in Scotland with Dundee, and his latest return to Preston will amount to little more than a spin through a revolving door. 

With his contract running out at the end of the season, Boyle won’t play for the club again and a loan move back to Scotland or Ireland is the most likely next step. 

Another League of Ireland recruit set to be loaned out is left-back Kevin O’Connor. 

O’Connor has another 18 months to run on his contract, but like Boyle, is facing a third loan move in the weeks ahead. He has been starved of opportunities to impress with fellow Irishman Greg Cunningham and then academy product Josh Earl preferred at left-back. 

In search of minutes, O’Connor went to Fleetwood on loan in January but made just four League One appearances. In the summer he dropped a further division to Crewe…and played just once. 

Two of his fellow recruits from Cork City have been much more successful.

Preston fans have taken quickly to Sean Maguire, who scored 10 times in 25 appearances in his first season.

A troublesome hamstring injury has restricted him to just seven games this season, although he started making his first tentative steps back to fitness off the bench in an FA Cup tie in January. 

“He’s a very popular player over here”, says Dave Seddon, who covers Preston for the Lancashire Evening Post. “There was a lot of anticipation for his arrival as it was announced six or seven weeks before he came over, so fans were watching from afar as he was scoring in Europe”. 

He’s a nice guy, very decent. When he has been fit, he’s been phenomenal. In his first game back after that hamstring surgery, he scored twice off the bench in the space of half an hour. He’s quite down to earth, too.

Maguire has been plagued by hamstring trouble, requiring surgery to mend a serious tear in November 2017. The injury he has just returned from was also a hamstring problem, although to a different part of the muscle to the original tear. 

He has proved a versatile addition for Alex Neil, and can play up front or in either of the wider positions in the manager’s favoured 4-2-3-1. 

In comparison to Alan Browne, however, Maguire is rigid and set in his ways. Across 182 games for Preston, Browne has played in all positions across the back four as well as out wide and deep in central midfield. He is currently thriving in the number 10 position of Neil’s 4-2-3-1. 

“He’s part of the furniture now”, says Seddon. “Under Alex Neil he has developed into his number 10. He’s a hard-running player, and isn’t the technical, Ozil-type. But he gets his goals and has his Ireland caps…an all-round good egg”. 

Browne’s opportunity has proved to be Graham Burke’s difficulty. Manager Alex Neil has admitted that Burke’s best position is the one currently occupied by Browne, and as a result Burke has found himself on the fringes of the matchday squad, and has only thrice completed 90 minutes. 

The club are unlikely to let him leave on loan in January, however, and will be given further time to settle at the club. 

Callum Robinson is another stumbling block in Burke’s way, and remains as important to the club as ever. He remains the club’s top scorer this season, despite the fact he hasn’t played since November.

A torn hamstring will keep him out until the end of February at least, and he may yet miss out on Mick McCarthy’s squad for the opening couple of Euro 2020 qualifiers in the third week of March. 

It’s this system that put paid to Daryl Horgan’s ambitions, with Neil deeming him to be less suited at playing as a narrow forward. With Martin O’Neill urging Maguire to find first-team football to aid his international prospects, he left for Neil Lennon’s Hibs. 

“To be fair, I thought he did okay when he was here” reflects Seddon.

He scored a few goals, often made a impact off bench, but he struggled to fit into style of play.  He wanted to play, and I wouldn’t bracket him with Boyle and O’Connor – I thought it worked out OK with Horgan.

The Preston youth ranks are littered with a couple of Irish prospects: 17-year-old Adam O’Reilly made his senior debut as a substitute against Aston Villa in the final game of 2018. With Preston blighted with injury, O’Reilly was among four teenagers on the bench, 

“He already has a pro contract”, says Seddon.

He signed a two-year scholarship that was then followed by a guaranteed, two-year professional deal.  He’s an attacking midfielder, a lively player, and hopes are very high for him.

O’Reilly will be involved in the FA Youth Cup tie with Norwich next Tuesday, along with goalkeeper Jimmy Corcoran, he of the penalty shootout heartbreak in the under-17 Euros against Holland last year. 

Corcoran has been training with the first-team, and has travelled with the squad to matches, so is making good progress since joining from Cherry Orchard in the summer. 

Having spent much of last season on the fringes of the play-offs, a series of shattering injuries have made this a turbulent season for Preston. They are looking nervously over their shoulders, however, eight points clear of the drop. 

It’s hoped that he incipient return of Browne and Maguire from injury should help them push up the league.

It’s fair to say that Irish fans are right behind them. 

Ahead of the final weekend of European pool games, Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey look at what each of the provinces can expect, and who impressed last weekend:


Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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Gavin Cooney

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