TIME of the year for glancing across the sea and totting up the pluses and minuses among the Irish crowd over there.
With pretty much our entire squad playing in England it's as good a way as any for analysing potential and predicting form. The more established guys are easy. The world and its mother knows Robbie Keane has had the season (or half-season) of his life; that Damien Duff hasn't (17 stop-start league picks from 35); that Steven Reid is fulfilling potential at last and that Steve Finnan's as immovable as ever. The younger names are the more interesting.
Pluses for the year are, as always, as surprising in their origins as they are plentiful.
The mention of the names Kevin Doyle and Joey O'Brien only a year ago would have attracted the same questioning look from a fair few supporters as the phrase bird flu would have done, yet many would now have both in their first XI for Ireland. Doyle's season stands alone as the one to talk about. Nineteen goals and nine assists only tell part of it, as do his appearance on the Championship team of the season and his fans' player of the year award. Throw in the sparkle and the way he ran at defenders in that uncaring kind of way and you can see why Ipswich manager Joe Royle was speechless at the bargain picked up by Steve Coppell one spring night in Cork. Now if he can attack Premiership defences with the same confidence, that'll be worth seeing.
Joey O'Brien's year may not have been as eye-catching but it was just as fulfilling. Ok, he's a midfielder playing fullback for Bolton but 21 appearances (it'd be more only for a recent injury) and a spot nailed down ain't bad for a guy who wasn't at all sure he was going to be kept on at this time in 2005. He's been solid and composed on the ball and the only time he's looked in discomfort was when hacking down Steven Gerrard for a penalty back in January. It'd be interesting, and probably more beneficial for Ireland in the long-run, to see how a run in centre or right midfield would go.
Stephen Ireland has had a strangely up-down, yet ultimately satisfying, year at Manchester City. One delightful reverse pass to set up a goal against Fulham was probably worth the winning of five games and there were spells and moments of real class on the ball as well as an impressive Manchester derby. He was also the one player whose play struck the older Irish players before the Sweden international. Still there were just 13 starts (plus 11 substitute appearances) and the thinking from Stuart Pearce seems to be that he may need to bulk up a tad for the more physical side of the game in his area of the field.
So they're the main three young fellas to brag about.
Delve a little deeper though and there's lots more. The Independent in England ran a 'Top 20 players outside the Premiership' back in January and two Irish names appeared. Kevin Doyle of course was one. Owen Garvan of Ipswich was the other . . . Kevin Foley of Luton also got a special mention as one to keep an eye on. But back to Garvan for now. Only 18 and the lad has the likes of Everton and West Ham fluttering their eyelashes at him after a pretty top-notch year where his stylish left foot and quality on the ball dragged plenty of games up a level or two in pure entertainment, take a look at the goal he got against Millwall for a little tease of his ability. Oh and David Pleat, in his individual scouting report for the Guardian, was impressed enough to compare Garvan with a certain well-known, left-footed contributor to this very paper along with slapping a tag of Â£1.5m on him. Recentlyappointed Irish scout Charlie Woods has been to see him a few times already so don't be amazed by some recognition soonish.
Foley also got the Pleat treatment and emerged the other side with more positives than negatives. A right-back (seems like the football gods sprinkled the right-back dust a little stronger than most on this island) very much in the Steve Finnan mould, he's not shy on going forward and manager Mike Newell reckons he's as hard a worker as he's seen in training. Spurs and Aston Villa have been sniffing around. Pleat put a price of Â£1m on him.
They weren't the only success stories either. Paul McShane (20) spent the year on loan from Old Trafford at Brighton and was a serious player at centre-half, strong and forceful enough to get voted their player of the year and to be on the Opta top-10 Championship defenders even as they went down. Alex Ferguson sent 17 players on loan and he's stated he expects five of them to be pushing first team next season. He'll be wanted elsewhere if not there.
Chris McCann (18) had a belter of a six months at Burnley, the left-sided midfielder taking the young player and best goal awards in only 15 starts.
Paddy McCarthy (22) was fairly ever-present at the heart of the Leicester defence and well, ask any Leicester fans for a brave, committed player and they'll point out McCarthy.
Marcos Painter and Alex Bruce are just beginning to break into the Birmingham team but have a bit to do yet with only a handful of starts and a couple of stand-out errors, admittedly in an under-pressure defence.
Which brings us to the players who haven't quite reached the heights for various reasons. Willo Flood spent much of the year on loan at Coventry (where his form was only okay) and some on the Manchester City bench and was picked out, and not in a good way, by Frank Stapleton on Sky after an Ireland under-21 game. That criticism, along with a horrible incident where his home was broken into in Manchester, seem to have ruffled his confidence and he's spoken of needing to move on come the summer. Aidan McGeady, only just turned 20 remember, didn't get into any sort of stride, what with a few niggly injuries and some loss of form early in the season with Celtic, though he did have one fine Old Firm game.
Stephen Elliot was another frustrated by injury though a couple of crackers (one at home to Manchester United especially) gave a little glimpse of what he's about. All three will look for much better next season, all three will need much better next season.
So? Potential there alright, if a few too many still outside the top division. With a few getting promoted and another few premiership targets though, we might just get the chance for a better environment to judge them in.
HIGHS AND LOWS ACROSS THE WATER
PURE HITS Kevin Doyle (Reading) If awards and accolades tell the story he's the find of the year as far as Ireland are concerned. Goals, tricks and con"dence. Went from relative unknown for a very small fee to top striker (in overall play) in a competitive enough division. Don't need to say next year brings a different challenge.
Joey O'Brien (Bolton) Massive year at right-back where he never looked out of place and he was Jay-Jay Okocha's favourite out ball . . .
a high enough vote of confidence for us. At his best when pushing high up on wingers yet rarely skinned, even by a Reyes or a Ronaldo.
Owen Garvan (Ipswich) Ireland's Cesc Fabregas possibly?
Comfortable on the ball and likes to spray it around, get little one-twos and keep possession. Not a bad shot on him either. Broke through from successful youth team. More to come.
Stephen Ireland (Man City) Nice and tidy in midfield and got plenty of plaudits from Stuart Pearce at times for his control and passing ability. Impressed in the Irish senior camp as well. Thirteen starts isn't a bad beginning, may need to get a more de"nite position next time.
Kevin Foley (Luton) Picked out along with Garvan as one to watch outside the Premiership by more than one English paper or magazine. A full-back with a bit of pace and awareness. If rumours are to be believed, may not be outside the Premiership much longer.
Worthy mentionsf Paul McShane (Brighton), Chris McCann (Burnley), Andy Keogh (Scunthorpe), Paddy McCarthy (Leicester).
Aiden McGeady (Celtic) We should qualify the disappointed tag as most of these were through little fault of their own. McGeady was hit by a few knocks at the wrong time but admits himself he needs to find his best position. And then win it.
Willo Flood (Manchester City) Just didn't roll on from promise of the year before even though he was picked out as City's best player in the one start he made, against Chelsea.
May need to move for more regular football.
Darren Potter (Liverpool) Started a Champions League qualifier very early in the season but never more than a bit player at Anfield. Got a few games under his belt at Southampton while on loan at least.
Stephen Kelly (Spurs) Just doesn't seem to be fancied by manager Martin Jol. Didn't do badly in games he's played but still needs more regular football.
Stephen Elliot (Sunderland) Plagued with a back complaint for months at a time when he was on a run of form. Unlucky not to get the chance to shine the one year his team were up in the big league.
FOR 2006/07 Darron Gibson (Man Utd) Billy Clarke (Ipswich) Anthony Stokes (Arsenal) Michael Spillane (Norwich) Shane Long (Reading)