FROM ferry treks to Liverpool through to Ryanair flights to Sunderland, Irish supporters have never needed much encouragement to pop across the water for their football fix. But Aston Villa are giving them 13 new reasons to do just that.
Forget about a weekend away in Paris or Milan, the Irish are flocking to Birmingham – nothing new there some might say – to get a glimpse of their fellow countrymen lining out for a Premier League club.
In the 90’s, Villa were the English club that it was okay to root for as they had internationals like Paul McGrath, Steve Staunton, Ray Houghton and Andy Townsend playing for them.
That mini revolution in the English midlands sparked huge interest on these shores and led to the creation of 11 different branches of the Villa Lions supporters club with the Dublin section now boasting over 500 members.
Nothing lasts forever, though, and Sunderland took over as the buzz club of the noughties with Niall Quinn running the ship for the Drumaville Consortium, who allowed Roy Keane to steer their course and recruit several Irish ship-mates.
However, the tide has turned again with Villa re-emerging as the latest green machine in English football, boasting 13 players on their books who have been capped by Ireland at various levels.
And with Villa hosting Sunderland this afternoon, it is interesting to note that the visitors will have just three Irishmen in their first-team squad.
Villa are more than happy to take over again with six Irish players having featured this season with four more making the bench.
The latest graduate of club’s Irish academy is Samir Carruthers, a 19-year-old with Moroccan, English, Italian and, crucially, Irish hertiage. And he is glad to be part of the growing family.
‘It is brilliant to have so many Irish players here. Obviously, you have Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Ciaran Clark and Stephen Ireland who have played for the national team, and Robbie Keane was here for a while,’ said Carruthers.
‘But there are also a lot of young lads coming through. That is brilliant because it means it will help the national team in the future if so many Irish lads are playing for a top Premier League club.’
Carruthers has made two cameo appearances for Alex McLeish’s struggling side, both coming in the daunting arenas of Anfield and Old Trafford, and could make his home debut today.
The London-born player has come a long way in a short space of time, but he grew up quite quickly last summer when representing Ireland Under 19’s in the European Championships.
A key player for Paul Doolin’s team, the midfielder learned how to have an impact in key games and what playing for his country actually meant as the youngsters reached the semi-finals.
Carruthers will soon be back in action with the U19’s, who go into Elite Phase qualifying next month, but for now he is focusing on Villa and still pinching himself that he played against his hero.
‘It was a dream come true to play against Liverpool and Manchester United, but especially against Paul Scholes. For as long as I can remember he has been my idol and there I was playing against him,’ he recalled.
‘The way he controls every game that he plays in and his passing opening up teams up, it was an honour just to be on the same pitch as him. Hopefully I can get more experiences like that.’
Part of the reason why Carruthers should feature more is that McLeish is desperatedly trying to win over the club’s supporters. It has been a forgettable debut season for the manager, who joined from local rivals Birmingham City.
Although, the Irish youngsters who are standing out in their NextGen Series and Reserve teams – Enda Stevens, Daniel Devine, Derrick Williams, Bradley Lewis, Michael Drennan, Jack Grealish, Daniel Crowley and Graham Burke – look to have bright futures ahead of them.
Some won’t make it, though. During the last boom period of Irish players at the club, only Gareth Farrelly and John McGrath broke into the first-team as the likes of Sean Dillon, Alan Kirby, Darragh Sheridan and Alan Lee were off-loaded.
Carruthers, however, should be fine. The kid who the fans are calling ‘Samir Nasri, only better’ has skin as tough as a rhino’s hide and the natural ability to succeed.
He is just hoping that some of his mates can make the step up, too, and keep this new era of Irish players at Villa going strong.
‘A lot of us would be close friends. I hang out a lot with Danny [Devine] and Derrick [Williams]. And the likes of Enda [Stevens], Jack [Grealish] and Graham [Burke] have made the bench already,’ said Carruthers.
‘I think we are all heading in the right direction and it would be great if we broke into the first-team around the same time. We all want to be like Shay [Given] and Richard [Dunne], who are regulars for Villa and for Ireland.’
Villa are bound to have Irish reprensentatives at this summer’s Euro finals and with Carruthers & Co breaking through there could be plenty more to call on for future tournaments.
Villa’s Irish Core
Shay Given, Richard Dunne, Ciaran Clark, Stephen Ireland, Enda Stevens, Samir Carruthers, Derrick Williams, Graham Burke, Daniel Devine, Michael Drennan, Bradley Lewis, Jack Grealish, Daniel Crowley.