7 Irish players who could have a big say as the Championship promotion race heats up

With the top two facing each other tonight, the fight for a Premier League place is set to intensify.

1. Shane Duffy

Birmingham City v Brighton and Hove Albion - Sky Bet Championship - St Andrew's Barrington Coombs Barrington Coombs

THE 25-YEAR-OLD has been a regular at the heart of a Brighton defence that has conceded fewer goals than any other side in the Championship. With the Seagulls currently top of the table, Duffy may well add to the handful of Premier League appearances he made at Everton sooner rather than later.

2. Ciaran Clark

Newcastle United v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship - St James' Park Richard Sellers Richard Sellers

The odd mistake aside, Clark has settled in well to life at Newcastle since moving from Aston Villa in the summer. The Ireland international has made 35 appearances in total for the Magpies. Moreover, Rafa Benitez’s side have conceded just 27 goals this season — only Brighton have a better defensive record of all the teams in the Championship. And with second-place Newcastle five points clear of their nearest rivals, Clark could be set for a return to the Premier League at the first attempt.

3. Liam Kelly

Reading v Queens Park Rangers - Sky Bet Championship - Madejski Stadium PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

The 21-year-old is one of Irish football’s brightest prospects. He has made 23 appearances at senior level this season and was linked with a Premier League move before signing a new contract at the end of last year. The midfielder doesn’t always start for the Royals but he undoubtedly has the technical ability to make a difference when he does play, as fifth-place Reading look to consolidate their play-off spot at least.

4. Keiren Westwood

Sheffield Wednesday v Birmingham City - Sky Bet Championship - Hillsborough EMPICS Sport EMPICS Sport

Endured playoff heartache with Sheffield Wednesday last season despite a heroic performance in the final against Hull. Westwood is routinely cited as the best goalkeeper in the Championship and he was linked with a move to the Premier League last season. The 32-year-old Manchester-born stopper may get a chance to rectify last year’s disappointment this season, with the sixth-place Owls again in contention for the playoffs.

5. Wes Hoolahan

Norwich City v Newcastle United - Sky Bet Championship - Carrow Road Nigel French Nigel French

Wes Hoolahan will turn 35 in May, but he remains a vital player for Norwich, as his 26 appearances for the Canaries this season and the odd spectacular goal illustrate. Nevertheless, the club’s form this season has been inconsistent. They are currently in eighth position, six points off the playoff spots, and consequently face a big few weeks as they bid to stay in the promotion hunt.

6. Aiden McGeady

Preston North End v Wigan Athletic - Sky Bet Championship - Deepdale EMPICS Sport EMPICS Sport

Aiden McGeady, of course, is not the only important Irish player at Preston. Daryl Horgan, Greg Cunningham and Alan Browne have all impressed in recent weeks, while ex-Dundalk defender Andy Boyle — who is still waiting to make his senior debut in English football — could yet figure amid the end-of-season run-in. However, McGeady — on loan at the club from Everton — has been especially impressive of late, and he could yet inspire a late-season promotion drive. The Lilywhites are currently six points off the playoff spots in ninth, but recent form indicates they could still contend. In their last four games, they have secured 10 points from a possible 12, while they also ran Arsenal close in a memorable FA Cup tie at Deepdale back in January.

7. Eunan O’Kane

Leeds United v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship - Elland Road Dave Howarth Dave Howarth

The excellent form of fellow Ireland midfielder Harry Arter meant O’Kane had to go elsewhere in search of first-team football. The 26-year-old has since made 22 appearances this season for a fourth-place Leeds side bidding to return to the Premier League for the first time since the 2003-04 campaign.

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