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A bleak 2022 s saw the numbers of Irish players making an impact in the top division of English football dwindling to alarming levels.
Evan Ferguson has illuminated Ireland’s Premier League presence in the opening weeks of 2023 – and former Brighton manager Chris Hughton insists the door is open for more youngsters to follow in his footsteps.
A bleak 2022 saw the numbers of Irish players making an impact in the top division of English football dwindling to alarming levels.
Yet the first month of this new year has offered a ray of light for Ireland manager Stephen Kenny ahead of the crucial Euro 2024 qualifiers that are rapidly emerging over the horizon.
He is the latest Irish breakthrough act at Brighton after the club provided a platform for Aaron Connolly, Jayson Molumby and Shane Duffy to play in the Premier League in recent years, with the trio enjoying mixed success.
Now Mark O’Mahony has joined the Seagulls from Cork City and the Irish duo James Furlong and Andrew Moran will be looking to repeat Ferguson’s story by making a step up to the Brighton first team.
It is a supply line that gives Irish players hope of mixing it in the most lucrative league of them all and ex-Brighton boss Hughton has stressed the door is always open to top talent.
“The idea that Irish players are no longer on the radar of the top English clubs is not correct, but the landscape has changed in recent years,” Hughton told us.
“You look back to the 1980s when I was playing or even the start of the Premier League era and most of the squads were full of British and Irish players.
“That has changed and the world is now much smaller in many ways.
“When I was at Tottenham and we signed Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa from Argentina, it was a massive story.
“This was not normal back then, but it has gone the other way now.
“Signing an English player is unusual now and that’s partly due to the cost and also down to the depth of talent clubs are now looking at.
“Ireland and Scotland are no longer the only countries clubs are looking at, which was the case 30 and 40 years ago.
“I also feel Irish clubs are a little more shrewd in the way they do business these days and realise they can ask for more money and that means the days of Irish players coming over for little or nothing are gone.
“All of this has combined to make it more challenging for young players from Ireland to get into the Premier League.”
Hughton believes direct partnerships between Irish and English clubs could be considered as a method to relieve another big issue affecting player development, with Premier League academies overloaded with young players.
“There is an issue with academies,” he adds.
“They have huge numbers of players from all over the UK and Ireland that are not getting enough first-team football and their careers can stagnate.
“We need to get more of them out at Championship and League One clubs to prove they are good enough to play in the Premier League, but loaning players is not always a solution.
“I look at a player like Jayson Molumby, who I had at Brighton. You loan a player out and they don’t always get the games they were expecting or they develop in a different way.
“Then they can struggle to adapt back into your team when the loan ends.
“We also have issues with reserve teams being replaced by under-21 teams, so players who are not in a team regularly can drift and it can be difficult to break that cycle.”
Such dilemmas are not a concern for 18-year-old Ferguson right now, with current Brighton boss Roberto De Zerbi convinced he has a star in the making in the Bettystown marksman.
“He has big potential and I think he can help us in the second part of the season,” says De Zerbi.
“My job is to give him and the other young players the possibility to play and Evan has taken his chance.
“He’s 18 but in terms of his head he is older. This is the good thing about Evan. He has a good level of maturity.”
Ferguson signed a new Brighton contract on his 18th birthday in October that runs until 2026.
Yet there are suggestions that the club will now look to tie him down to a new deal that will justify his status as one of the club’s brightest talents.