The city of Portsmouth, on England`s south coast, has long been associated with seafaring and naval training and all things maritime. But a more recent association with their football club has been the number of Irish players who helped Pompey to the League 2 title last season. And of the five players concerned, four of them began their careers in the League of Ireland.
The former Sligo Rovers boss, Paul Cook, has fond memories of his time at the Showgrounds. This was where he first cut his teeth in management, winning both the League Cup and FAI Cup in 2010. Prior to being headhunted by the Portsmouth, Cook had guided an unfancied Chesterfield side to the League 1 play-offs. Chief among their goalscorers that season were ex-Bray midfielder Jay O`Shea and the former Sligo and Shamrock Rovers striker Eoin Doyle.
Pompey have a loyal and passionate fanbase. Their average home gate of 16,000 last season is phenomenal for a League 2 outfit and must be the envy of their south coast neighbours Bournemouth, playing three tiers above them in the EPL. Cook managed to restore belief among the fans and expectations will be high next season for a strong finish in League 1.
The Irish spine of the league-winning team began between the posts, with former ROI keeper David Forde. Forde started his career with Galway Utd and later moved to Derry City, with whom he won three cup competitions. He made 340 appearances for Millwall, being named the club`s Player of the Year in 2013/14, and won 24 caps for the ROI.
While Forde`s experience was crucial to Pompey`s defence last season, Enda Stevens also made a huge contribution at left-back. The ex-Shamrock Rovers defender joined Pompey from Villa in the summer of 2015 and was a regular starter throughout last season. Stevens won back-to-back league titles with Rovers under Michael O`Neill and was part of the first LOI team to reach a group stage of European competition.
The veteran midfielder, Michael Doyle, came through the ranks at Celtic before moving to Coventry in 2003. He made 300 appearances for the Sky Blues before spending four years at Sheffield Utd. Doyle joined Pompey with his fellow Irishman, Enda Stevens, in 2015.
Noel Hunt began his career with Shamrock Rovers before spells in Scotland with Dunfermline and Dundee Utd. The former Irish international is best known for his time with Reading, where his goals helped them win promotion to the Premier League. Like Forde and Michael Doyle, Hunt brings a wealth of experience to the club and is no doubt a great influence on the younger players.
Eoin Doyle is no stranger to the LOI, having played for Sligo Rovers, Shels and Shamrock Rovers. He joined Pompey on loan from Preston on transfer deadline day in January of this year. He had previously played under Paul Cook at both Sligo and Chesterfield, winning the League 2 title with the Spireites. Doyle has moved clubs probably more than he wishes, including spells at Hibs and Cardiff along the way. Cook seems to bring out the best in Doyle and the striker was the top scorer in League 1 during his time at Chesterfield.
It seems there are two English league clubs who are quite partial to signing LOI players, namely Pompey and Preston. While we may regret the talent drain from our league, we shouldn’t begrudge the players concerned for trying to further their careers. Preston have recently added Sean Maguire to their ranks, making it four ex-LOI players in their squad. Between Pompey in League 1 and Preston in the Championship, there`s no guessing which teams I`ll be rooting for next season.