The island of Ireland has certainly produced some truly fantastic players over the past number of years. With quite a few quality young stars rising through the ranks of their domestic divisions at present (the League of Ireland) such as teenage sensation Ryan Manning who only recently joined London side Queens Park Rangers as well as Dundalk's free-scoring Richie Towell, it has been a joy to watch more potential seep through.
Aside from that, however, the examples of just how rich with talent the Emerald Isle can be are plentiful indeed. Gracing such top-class clubs such as Manchester United, Juventus, Chelsea, Celtic, Barcelona, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and many more, the Irish have rarely been far from the top of the tree. Despite the lack of stars at the biggest clubs right now, though, one need not look too far into the past to see just how many there have been - and the future will surely see them scale those heights again.
Whether it has been the Premier League, Champions League or FIFA World Cup, players of descent from the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland have seen their best and brightest play ball at the highest levels of professional football, and deservedly so.
Make no mistake, sitting in the shadow of Europe, it's often been easy for the casual observer to forget about some of the skillful and influential performers who have emanated from there. So, this list aims to draw attention to not just the well-known stars who have already booked their place in the pantheon of greats but also those who might not be so recognisable at first glance, despite their contributions to the world of football.
Remember, as usual, this list is not intended to be set in stone, so make sure you have your say in the comments section at the bottom of the article.
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15 Brendan Bradley
Not quite as illustrious as some of the other players set to feature, but Brendan Bradley has had a huge impact on Irish football nevertheless. With the most amount of goals in the history of the domestic Irish league, the ex-Finn Harps striker netted a whopping 235 goals in all.
In truth, it's difficult to see how he'll be moved from top spot any time soon. Scoring in the European Cup Winners' Cup as well as recording four straight seasons as the league's top scorer, it's a shame to think that he was never capped by Northern Ireland.
14 David O'Leary
Although this former Arsenal defender will forever be remembered as the star who sent Ireland through to their first-ever quarter-finals of a World Cup (their best-ever showing to date) with a vital spot-kick against Romania, he actually led an immensely fruitful career.
Joining the Gunners as an apprentice aged just 15, he even managed to become their captain for a brief period in the 1980s. Perhaps his best season arrived in 1992/93 when he played a big role in their league and cup double before he departed for Leeds United where an injury-hampered career saw him enjoy little but a limited role.
13 Patrick O'Connell
The first Irish captain of Manchester United as well as becoming the saviour of FC Barcelona during the 1930s, Patrick O' Connell's achievements are beyond impressive. A lesser-known success story than a lot of the other players in our list, he has rarely received the necessary plaudits.
Pouring all of his energy into bringing an almost bankrupt Barca team on a tour of the United States to raise some much-needed funds, he helped keep them afloat as manager. Starring in a career blighted by match-fixing scandals as well as the Second World War, "Don Patricio" certainly didn't have an easy ride but he did at least win the Home Nations Championship.
12 Damien Duff
A champion and a magician down the wing, Damien Duff made his short stay at the top of the game count with a nice little haul of silverware. Much more importantly, however, "the Duffer" earned the respect of his peers as well as one of the very best minds in the game.
In particular, his former boss Jose Mourinho paid tribute to his skill and his clinical touch when he said: "I think we are going in a very good direction. People like [Arjen] Robben, [Damien] Duff and even [Joe] Cole in his two great seasons with me were people with appetite to kill matches, to finish."
11 Ray Houghton
Scorer of one of the most iconic Irish goals of all time, Ray Houghton netted a glorious header against their oldest and most bitter of rivals, England almost 30 years ago. Looping a glancing effort past a despairing goalkeeper at the European Championships in 1988, he gifted his side a bit of luck in a massive encounter.
Playing at a time when the Republic of Ireland's forays into international competitions were a lot more regular than they have been of late, Houghton's experience of the big games and the big moments meant that, although he was not the most skilled of stars, he will always be recalled for his capacity to step up to the plate when it counted.
10 Danny Blanchflower
Having helped lead Northern Ireland to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 1958 where they ultimately lost to France, Danny Blanchflower managed to earn himself a reputation as a real icon of the game with his exploits. Lauded as Tottenham Hotspur's best player in a 2009 poll having played 330 matches for them, it's clear he holds a really special place in the hearts of the Lilywhites' supporters.
With a league and cup double in the early 1960s also to show for his efforts, Blanchflower was a real hero as well as a captain – a combination the present day Spurs side would do well to emulate in time for the upcoming 2015/16 Premier League campaign.
9 Johnny "Jackie" Carey
Another Irish star who joined the ranks of greatness at Manchester United, Johnny Carey is in the same class as Patrick O' Connell in that his impressive successes remain shrouded by the history of time. Indeed, he also draws parallels with Damien Duff as he too, began life with Home Farm in Dublin.
Winning the Old First Division title as well as the FA Cup, he also earned over 100 caps, so his time with the Red Devils can certainly be regarded as an accomplished one, despite the fact his career was forced to take a rather lengthy interlude due to the outbreak of World War II.
8 Shay Given
Having only recently returned to the Republic of Ireland national team set-up under Martin O' Neill and Roy Keane, the inimitable goalkeeping heroics of Shay Given ought to give the Green Army a massive boost as they look to qualify for France 2016 ahead of either Poland or Scotland.
An agile performer, the ex-Manchester City custodian has come to the defence of his country time and again with some acrobatic reactions and big-game saves. His time in the top tier of the English game might not be considered a success by many, but at least he knows what it's like to have an FA Cup medal draped around his neck.
7 Paul McGrath
Struggling with anxiety issues and a fiercely debilitating personal tribulation with alcoholism, it can be easy for football fans of the modern era to reflect on Paul McGrath's career without much appreciation. Often in the public eye for the wrong reasons, he is an ex-footballer who has often toiled with inner demons.
Away from that, however, the player affectionately dubbed “The Black Pearl of Inchicore” has always found a home on the football pitch. Having begun with St Patrick's Athletic in Dublin, he eventually enjoyed a number of seasons with Manchester United where he made 163 appearances as well as earning an FA Cup winners' medal.
6 Johnny Giles
Currently a pundit working for the national broadcaster RTE, Johnny Giles continues to make a name for himself as a man who knows his football. At his peak, the now 74-year-old was a terrific performer who started his career at Manchester United as a 15-year-old midfielder where he eventually won the FA Cup before progressing on to Leeds United for yet more glory.
Partnering Billy Bremner in the middle of the park, they formed a formidable pairing for the Peacocks as they won a Football League Cup, another FA Cup and a Charity Shield, among other titles. Add these honours to the fantastic displays he cultivated for the Green Army on the pitch and from the dugouts, and it's clear "Gilesy" deserves to be recalled as one of the best.
5 Packie Bonner
Star of the Republic of Ireland's famous 1990 World Cup penalty shoot-out victory over Romania where he set David O' Leary up to net the all-important winner with his tremendous reflexes, he's also a great defender of the continuing growth of Irish football from a grass-roots level. Lining out for Glasgow Celtic for several seasons, he became a club legend, something that saw his stock with the locals rise immeasurably.
A great supporter of local football, he once attended the Galway Cup - where teams from all over the world play to win - to deliver a rousing speech on the importance of nurturing youth and improving Ireland's sports science. A genuine hero.
4 Liam Brady
Another footballer-turned-TV-pundit, Liam Brady might be well past his prime and considered an armchair critic by many, but he is undoubtedly one of the greats of Irish football. A rare specimen in that he took it upon himself to move abroad to the Serie A to play for Juventus, Sampdoria and Inter Milan, the now 59-year-old was something of a trailblazer.
Beginning his career at Arsenal, he eventually returned to the Gunners as an Academy Director. Having won two domestic Italian titles as well as an FA Cup, his success was terrific and although the science of the sport has progressed in light years, the Dubliner's been instrumental behind the scenes in helping usher in a new era of young stars – a lasting legacy that should inspire up-and-coming Irish starlets.
3 Robbie Keane
One of the most loyal servants with the Republic since 1998 – and still going strong – Robbie Keane has never given up on chasing success and triumphs around the pitch. Currently the highest-scoring international player currently active with 65 goals, the ex-Tottenham Hotspur star is fast-approaching Gerd Mullers' personal record of 68.
Presently plying his trade in MLS with LA Galaxy, the diminutive Irish goal-getter maintains the hunger he has always had – and he's not simply a goalscorer either. A true leader and a tremendous sportsman, although he has not won as much as his talent and endeavour has deserved, he will always be a real favourite with the fans. After all, who could possibly forget that goal he scored in the 2002 World Cup against Germany to send Mick McCarthy's charges through to the last 16? Pure brilliance.
2 George Best
Famed just as much for his extra-curricular activities as he was for his sporting prowess, George Best did his utmost to detract from his natural talent. Suffering from alcoholism, the Northern Ireland international saw fame and money cause problems for him throughout much of his professional career.
That said, he dazzled just about everyone who watched him play with some mind-bending tricks, dribbles and close control of the ball. For years he was unrivalled in his ability to make a fool of defenders with his sublime touches – after all, who could forget the way he lobbed all those Spurs defenders back in 1971 in an old First Division match-up? Roughly 12 yards from goal and with four defenders and the goalkeeper to beat, he coolly scooped the ball over them and into the back of the net. Genius.
1 Roy Keane
An icon of the game. A leader. A warrior, and a winner, Roy Keane embodied each and every one of these schemas when he was at the top of his game in his heyday. Battling his way from Cobh Ramblers all the way to Manchester United, via Nottingham Forest, “Keano” knew all about hard work and dedication to get to where he wanted to. Becoming a Red Devil and a captain in no time, the huge haul of trophies and medals he helped win across England and Europe are a real testament to his long-standing brilliance.
True, his international career was blighted with certain drawbacks, and his club career saw himself branded as an over-the-top mercenary due to the Alf Inge-Haaland incident as well as his trouble in Saipan, however, he has arguably been the greatest Irishman to play the game due to the manner in which he has not let his technical and personal foibles hamper his journey too much.
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