Who says you can’t go home? The hidden value of the League of Ireland

A look at some of the players who are proving the worth of the Irish domestic league

Jack Byrne may be the best footballer currently playing in Ireland.

In the past six months, the 23-year-old Shamrock Rovers midfielder earned his first two caps for the Republic of Ireland, won the PFAI Player of the Year award and raised the FAI Cup at the Aviva Stadium.

It was that résumé that earned the Manchester City Academy product an audience with former minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross, and Brendan Griffin minister of State as part of a delegation that met with the ministers last month to discuss the future of the sport in Ireland.

“It was back here in Ireland, playing for Shamrock Rovers, that I made my senior international debut”, Byrne told RTÉ 2fm Game On’s Marie Crowe when asked what he brought up at the meeting. “So it’s important, not only for the young players to have a good academy system to go away to in England, but it’s also important for the players that come back here that they have a league that’s sustainable and that’s strong enough that they can play here and that they can kick on.”

The League of Ireland is not without its problems. Poor stadium infrastructure, lack of funding and an absence of top-class players are all issues that have plagued the competition. As Byrne noted, though, the league is quietly valuable as a platform for players to rejuvenate their careers, especially after a spell in England. Here are three footballers who, like Byrne, made a name for themselves after coming back home.

Poor stadium infrastructure, lack of funding and an absence of top-class players are all issues that have plagued the competition.”

  • Graham Burke

The 26-year-old forward bounced around English football early in his career, making most of his senior appearances in League Two for Notts County. Burke was a prolific scorer in his youth career for Aston Villa, winning the golden boot in the 2012-13 NextGen Series, which at the time was the preeminent U19 competition in Europe.

However, the Dublin-native never made a Premier League appearance for the Villans. After a couple of loan spells in the lower divisions, he signed a two-year contract with Notts in July 2015, where he would score just twice in 36 league games before his contract was cancelled in February 2017.

Burke quickly found himself back in Dublin playing for Shamrock Rovers. He made 41 appearances for the club over a season-and-a-half and scored 18 goals. His breakthrough at Tallaght Stadium earned him his first caps for the Republic of Ireland National Team (where he became the first League of Ireland player to score for Ireland in 40 years) and a three-year contract with Championship club Preston North End in June 2018. He is currently back at Shamrock Rovers on loan.

“I came back as a broken player,” he told the Irish Independent last year. “And I was rejuvenated here. I got going and then after a year and a half – a really short space of time – I’m off again.”

  • Daniel Mandroiu

Daniel Mandroiu, another Dubliner, had a very happy homecoming last year with Bohemians. The attacking midfielder, who turned 21 in October, found the net 10 times in 27 games in 2019. He won the PFAI Young Player of the Year award as a result of his breakout campaign and was named to the PFAI Team of the Year. He also made his first five appearances for the Ireland U21 team.

Mandroiu’s greatest moment came in the Dublin Derby in June. With Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers level at one goal apiece in the 59th minute, Mandroiu sent the Dalymount Park crowd into a frenzy with a 25-yard rocket off his left foot that flew into the back of the net. The strike, which ended up being the match winner, has been viewed over 200,000 times on the eir Sport Twitter account.

Last season’s rise was a rapid one for the player who spent four years in the Brighton youth system without a senior appearance. If he can replicate that success this year, another move to England may soon be on the horizon.

“The League of Ireland may not be perfect, but its value as a platform to revitalise careers should not go unnoticed.”

  • Zack Elbouzedi

Unlike Burke and Mandoiu, Zack Elbouzedi is currently playing in England. Following a single successful season for Waterford in the League of Ireland, the 21-year-old went back across the Irish Sea and joined Lincoln City in January on a two-year deal. He has made five League One appearances since then.

Elbouzedi’s journey to Lincoln City was a complicated one. The winger, who spent time in the West Bromwich Albion youth system, had a brief spell in the lower divisions in Scotland before moving to Waterford last year.

At Waterford, Elbouzedi scored six times in 29 games and made his debut with the Ireland U21 team. He impressed for Stephen Kenny’s side by scoring three goals in 10 games. “Elbouzedi we were aware of through just watching a little bit of League of Ireland stuff”, Lincoln City’s Head of Football Jez George told Pundit Arena earlier this month. “It’s a league where there are some really good players and there’s always players that have some real potential.”

Byrne, Burke, Mandroiu and Elbouzedi are sublime examples of those really good players. The League of Ireland may not be perfect, but its value as a platform to revitalise careers should not go unnoticed.