Irish rivals in League One promotion race bonded by a common goal

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STRAIN YOUR NECK and peer between one of the four, 18-storey tower blocks that make up the Harvist Estate and you will be able to see Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium just metres away.

It is the perfect parallel to sum up the borough of inequality that is Islington in north London, where multimillionaires and those on the breadline share the N1 postcode.

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Not far from the junction of Hornsey Road, which houses the Gunners’ multi-million pound home, and Citizen Drive, leading to the Harvist Estate, is a ‘Word 4 Weapons Knife Bin’.

It is one of seven such amnesty points in Islington alone, with a further 26 dotted around the English capital, as the knife crime epidemic continues to ravage communities.

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And it’s not as if the Premier League giants are blind to the situation. Earlier this month, as part of their ‘No More Red’ campaign, Arsenal wore a special all white jersey for their FA Cup third round defeat to Nottingham Forest.

It came after a 16-year-old boy was stabbed to death and became the 30th teenage homicide victim in London this year alone.

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Irish rivals in League One promotion race bonded by a common goal
© Alamy Stock Photo Arsenal’s all-white shirt as part of the ‘No More Red’ initiative.

The Harvist Estate, and Islington, is where Sunderland’s Aiden O’Brien grew up. That life of gang violence and crime was one he was initially drawn to, before football helped provide a different focus.

Arsenal may have rejected the young striker early on his journey into the professional game, but Millwall soon provided a home, and it was while there that he became a senior Republic of Ireland international under Martin O’Neill, scoring on his full debut away to Poland in a 1-1 draw four years ago.

Having already starred in the underage grades due to his eligibility through his grandfather from Carrick-on-Shannon and Dublin-born grandmother, the 28-year-old has not been able to establish himself in the Ireland squad since.

He left the New Den for Sunderland in the summer of 2020, dropping out of the Championship in search of regular first-team football and to try and help the Black Cats return to that level from League One.

Injury as well as recovering from Covid-19 has played a part in hampering his impact this season – just two league goals in 17 appearances, out of a possible 28 games – have meant he has not been a pivotal part in Sunderland’s automatic promotion push.

O’Brien finds himself at a crossroads in his own career, but will be going nowhere before the end of this January transfer window as the League One season seems destined to go down to the wire.

At the heart of the race for promotion are a glut of Irish stars all at varying stages of their professional lives, but bonded by a shared target for the remainder of this campaign: promotion.

Sunderland are level with Wigan Athletic on 54 points, but it’s the latter who sit top thanks to a goal difference that is three better off.

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Irish rivals in League One promotion race bonded by a common goal
© Alamy Stock Photo Wigan’s James McClean.

James McClean turns 33 in April and has been a key figure for Wigan after securing a move from Stoke City. This is his 11th season in English football – five apiece in the Premier League and Championship – and his first in the third tier.

He remains prominent for Stephen Kenny’s Ireland, however, yet one of O’Brien’s team-mates on Wearside, the mercurial Aiden McGeady, will not be joining the centurion club.

He remains deadlocked on 93 caps and, ahead of his 36th birthday in April, this is likely to be his final season in England’s north east as his contract is up in the summer.

The hope for Sunderland is that he will at least recover from a knee ligament injury that cut short a promising campaign which produced seven direct goal contributions in 14 appearances.

McGeady still has that spark of ingenuity that could prove crucial in any run in.

McGeady and McClean are two former Premier League players at two former Premier League clubs who have suffered through boom and bust cycles, and one of the latter’s current team-mates appeared likely to carve out a career at one of the biggest of all: Manchester United.

Will Keane was a prodigy throughout the underage groups at Old Trafford, and for England, and was on the fast-track to stardom at the same time that his twin brother Michael, also on United’s books, turned out for Ireland.

Injury and a series of uninspiring loan moves meant Will never forged that top-flight career, while Michael is now an Everton regular and England international.

The recently-turned 29-year-old has scored 15 times in 30 appearances this term, and will be aiming to net in his fourth consecutive league game when they face Bolton Wanderers away today.

That kind of form might well see him feature prominently under Kenny this year – certainly for friendlies with Belgium and Lithuania in March.

By which time they will have made up three of the four games in hand they have on Sunderland, and might well find themselves out in front.

The hunt remains on for those automatic spots, though, and just a point below in third is Rotherham United, who have bolstered their striking options with the arrival of Georgie Kelly following the end of his contract at Bohemians.

The reigning PFA Ireland Player of the Year is now embarking on life in Britain and won’t need to look far within his new surroundings to garner advice from a fellow League of Ireland graduate.

Chiedozie Ogbene departed these shores for Brentford in 2018 – the same year O’Brien scored on his Ireland debut – and after a loan spell with Exeter City joined Rotherham a year later.

Promotion to the Championship was swiftly followed by relegation, yet 2021 witnessed his breakthrough on the international stage, becoming the first African-born player to represent the senior Ireland team.

Two goals in five appearances, combined with exciting displays on the flank and centrally, have bolstered Kenny’s attacking options at the most opportune time.

Ogbene will celebrate his 25th birthday the day after the regular League One season is due to finish on 30 April.

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Irish rivals in League One promotion race bonded by a common goal
© Alamy Stock Photo Chiedozie Ogbene of Rotherham United.

Whether he will be able to properly relax or have to endure the play-off route will be decided in the coming months. But he has already spoken openly about how the Premier League is the Promised Land, like it is for 21-year-old Joshua Kayode.

Another former Cork City player, Kieran Sadlier, left the Millers for Bolton Wanderers this week.  

Rotherham have never been there – or the old First Division – and nor have another of the minnows vying for automatic promotion.

Daryl Horgan’s Wycombe Wanderers could actually go top of the table should they beat MK Dons, and Rotherham drop points along with the top two losing.

Unlikely, but it shows how tight it is and, with Covid having disrupted the fixture schedule, Rotherham and Wigan have two and four games in hand, respectively, over their closest rivals.

Even MK Dons, with their own little Irish enclave of former Brighton centre back Warren O’Hora (22) and the on-loan duo of Troy Parrott (Tottenham Hotspur) and Conor Coventry (West Ham United), will harbour ambitions of a top-two finish.

All three of their youngsters have experienced a sliver of that Premier League pie without getting anywhere near enough of a taste to satisfy their appetite.

Irish rivals in League One promotion race bonded by a common goal
© Alamy Stock Photo Troy Parrott who is on loan at MK Dons.

The Irish at Oxford United, who make up the final play-off spot and have their own game in hand on MK Dons and Wycombe, have their own motivations.

Limerick’s Anthony Forde, 28, made six top-flight appearances for Wolves at the tail end of their relegation in 2011 and has remained in the shadows ever since, yet Belfast’s Mark Sykes, who declared for the Republic in 2020, and Meath’s Luke McNally, who arrived in England from St Patrick’s Athletic, will believe that is a dream not out of reach.

There are those among the Irish in League One who are nearing the end of careers that have scaled the heights and struggled through the mire to enjoy the successes that have followed.

For some, the path they will continue on has yet to be determined, and may well zig zag off road in the third tier for longer than they would hope.

Others know the exhausting journey is only really beginning.

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