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The Irishmen with the Premier League in their sights as the Championship returns

The promotion race resumes this afternoon and there’ll be plenty of Irish interest over the coming weeks.

Updated Jun 20th 2020, 12:01 PM

aston-villa-v-norwich-city-sky-bet-championship-villa-park Teemu Pukki celebrating after Norwich City clinched the Championship title last season. Source: Nigel French

THE PREMIER LEAGUE’S return has understandably been English football’s predominant topic of conversation in recent days, but this weekend also marks the beginning of a decisive period for clubs with aspirations of playing top-flight football next season.

Between today and 22 July, all 24 clubs in the Championship will play their remaining nine fixtures in the 2019-20 campaign – and there’s plenty at stake, particularly for the sides at the upper end of the table.

The teams who finish in first and second place will each be rewarded with an automatic upgrade to Premier League status. The third promotion spot will be filled via the play-offs, which will be contested by the next four teams in the final standings.

The two legged semi-finals have been scheduled for 26/27 July and 29/30 July, with the lucrative final taking place at Wembley on 4 August.

So who’s in contention? Ahead of today’s resumption, we’ve taken a look at the Irish players in with a realistic chance of helping their clubs to reach the next level over the coming weeks.

Screen Shot 2020-06-19 at 17.27.18 Source: Sky Bet Championship

Click here if you are unable to view the table in the image above

West Bromwich Albion (automatic promotion place)

Despite relinquishing top spot to Leeds United, West Bromwich Albion are still in good fettle with a six-point buffer keeping them in the automatic promotion places.

Ireland U21 international Dara O’Shea has been a major success story for the Baggies this season. Although he’s more accustomed to playing in the centre of defence, O’Shea has been doing a job for his club at right-back. The 21-year-old Dubliner made 11 consecutive starts in all competitions prior to the lockdown.

West Brom manager Slaven Bilic is a big admirer. In the aftermath of O’Shea’s Championship debut in December, Bilic said: “Dara is the future, and he can be the present. I believe in him. Based on today, he’s a player. I love Dara.” 

The club’s faith in the St Kevin’s Boys product was manifested in their decision to reward him with a three-and-a-half-year contract extension in January.

Callum Robinson has also made a good impression at the Hawthorns, scoring twice in the eight appearances he made following his January loan move from Sheffield United.

The indications are that West Brom are interested in agreeing a permanent deal with the Blades for the 25-year-old attacker, who has won 12 senior caps for Ireland.

cardiff-city-v-west-bromwich-albion-sky-bet-championship-cardiff-city-stadium Dara O'Shea of West Bromwich Albion. Source: David Davies

West Brom are a point adrift of Leeds United, who currently don’t have any Irish involvement of note. Conor Shaughnessy is contracted to the Elland Road outfit for another year but doesn’t appear to have a future under Marcelo Bielsa, having not featured in a first-team game for the club since August 2018.

Since then, the versatile Galway native – who can operate in defence and midfield – has been on loan at Hearts, Mansfield Town and Burton Albion.

Fulham (first play-off place)

They may trail West Brom by six points, but it would take a collapse of seismic proportions from Fulham if they don’t have the consolation of a play-off to look forward to.

Following his loan move from Bournemouth, Harry Arter played 20 times for the Cottagers in the Championship but missed a couple of months through injury.

While the 30-year-old midfielder hasn’t played for Ireland since coming on as a substitute away to Gibraltar in March 2019, he can take encouragement from the fact that he was namechecked by new manager Stephen Kenny this week.

PA-49347700 Harry Arter scored a spectacular FA Cup goal for Fulham against Aston Villa in January. Source: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire/PA Images

His clubmate Cyrus Christie has also been out of the international picture lately, with his only cap during Mick McCarthy’s second tenure coming in the friendly against Bulgaria last September.

The 27-year-old right-back has been in and out of the Fulham team during a season which has yielded 18 appearances in the Championship.

Nottingham Forest (third play-off place)

The busy schedule over the next month or so is likely to stretch squad numbers to the limit, which should be good news for young players like Yassine En-Neyah.

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The 20-year-old attacking midfielder will hope to get his first taste of Championship action, having already made his senior debut in last January’s FA Cup defeat to Chelsea.

Forest manager Sabri Lamouchi suggested this week that his youngsters will have a big part to play, although En-Neyah is a doubt for today’s trip to Sheffield Wednesday due to a hamstring injury.

PA-49459136 Nottingham Forest's Yassine En-Neyah. Source: Adam Davy/PA Archive/PA Images

The Moroccan-born player was raised in Dublin and has represented Ireland at U15 level.

Preston North End (fourth play-off place)

The last play-off place is still occupied by Preston North End, despite the run of three consecutive defeats that Alex Neil’s side were on before the season ground to a halt.

Alan Browne has again been a key player in this campaign. Often wearing the captain’s armband, the 25-year-old Ireland midfielder missed just one of his club’s 37 Championship outings.

Sean Maguire has also featured prominently, playing in all but two of his side’s games. However, the 26-year-old striker will be desperate to get back on the goal trail, having not found the net since December.

Former Ireland U21 international Joe Rafferty has played 22 games in the Championship this season – mainly at left-back – but he found himself out of the side before the break.

PA-50012700 Preston North End's Sean Maguire under pressure from Conor Gallagher of Swansea City. Source: Dave Howarth/EMPICS Sport

Adam O’Reilly, who made his first-team debut at 17, featured on the bench for Preston this season before the Ireland U19 midfielder departed for a short loan spell at Stalybridge Celtic.

Graham Burke, who returned to Shamrock Rovers on loan last year, still has 12 months remaining on his contract but the Ireland international looks unlikely to have a future at Deepdale under Alex Neil. Kevin O’Connor, who also returned for loan spells in the League of Ireland, will officially leave Preston upon the expiry of his contract this summer.

Bristol City (one point outside play-offs)

Callum O’Dowda has played 26 times in the Championship this season for a Bristol City side who are just one point shy of breaking into the play-offs.

The 25-year-old winger will be eager to take his tally of senior Ireland caps beyond 18 by catching the eye of new boss Stephen Kenny.

Goalkeepers Max O’Leary and Rene Gilmartin are also at the club, but O’Leary spent the season on loan at Shrewsbury Town and 33-year-old Gilmartin occasionally featured on the bench, while doubling up as a coach at Ashton Gate.

PA-49437717 Callum O'Dowda of Bristol City. Source: Richard Sellers/PA Wire/PA Images

Millwall (two points outside play-offs) 

There are three Ireland internationals at Millwall, but the Irish player who has made the biggest impression at The Den this season has yet to make his senior debut for his country.

Jayson Molumby has been thriving since making a loan move from Brighton & Hove Albion, with the Premier League club acknowledging the progress of the Ireland U21 captain by handing him a three-and-a-half-year contract extension in March.

That development came as a disappointment to Millwall manager Gary Rowett, who had been planning an attempt to sign the Waterford-born midfielder permanently.

“He was a player we were hoping they maybe didn’t see as playing first-team football for them soon and that he might be one we potentially tried to buy,” Rowett said. “It was something we explored but it was clear Brighton saw him as part of their long-term future, so that was that.” 

Central defender Alex Pearce – who won the last of his nine senior caps in June 2017 – has captained Millwall this season. Midfielder Shaun Williams and striker Aiden O’Brien have also both featured regularly, while U21 international defender Danny McNamara was recalled from a loan spell at Newport County in January due to injury.

stoke-city-v-millwall-sky-bet-championship-bet365-stadium Jayson Molumby has impressed while on loan at Millwall. Source: EMPICS Sport

Blackburn Rovers (three points outside play-offs)

Darragh Lenihan has become an important component in Tony Mowbray’s side, often captaining Rovers from centre-back. The Meath native, with 29 Championship appearances to his credit this season, has won two senior caps, the most recent of which came in the friendly against Northern Ireland in November 2018.

Fellow defender Derrick Williams has had an injury-hampered season and he’s rated as doubtful for today’s home game against Bristol City. He has been capped on three occasions and scored in the win against New Zealand back in November.

Blackburn are in 10th place, a point behind Cardiff City, for whom former Shamrock Rovers midfielder Aaron Bolger has been progressing well in the U23s. Left-back Greg Cunningham continues to recover from the anterior cruciate knee ligament injury he sustained while on loan at Blackburn last October.

Derby County (five points outside play-offs) 

It has already been a breakout season for 19-year-old Dubliner Jason Knight, who has chipped in with four goals while playing 22 times for Derby County in the Championship.

The former Cabinteely youngster, who has seen his contract with the Rams extended until 2023, has also been recognised by Ireland at U21 level.

PA-51236133 Derby County's Jason Knight. Source: Bradley Collyer/PA Archive/PA Images

After Knight scored both goals in a 2-1 win over Charlton Athletic in December, Derby manager Phillip Cocu said: “Sometimes he has to play on the right, sometimes in the midfield and sometimes on the left. Tactically he does things right for the team and he is a real team player. I just enjoy watching him work and play football.

“It doesn’t matter if it is training, afternoon sessions or a game; it is always 100% effort. He is a quality player, important for the team with his goals and his work rate.” 

Queens Park Rangers (six points outside play-offs)

Former Ireland U21 playmaker Ryan Manning has reinvented himself as a left-back this season, excelling for a QPR side who’ll be determined to show that they’re not yet out of the race for a place in the play-offs.

He had to be patient in his pursuit of first-team football following his summer move from Liverpool, but current Ireland U21 centre-back Conor Masterson generally acquitted himself well in the eight appearances he made in all competitions since the turn of the year.

Olamide Shodipo, the 22-year-old winger who has also represented the Ireland U21s, played four times for QPR in the Championship this season. His current deal is due to expire this summer.

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Paul Dollery

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