Pre­ston’s Ir­ish con­tin­gent bat­tling for play-off place as Cham­pi­onship reaches thrilling cli­max

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT -

THE fi­nal day of The Cham­pi­onship is one of the great treats of the foot­ball sea­son. A mad scram­ble en­sues from the mo­ment the games kick off to­gether at 12.30 as pro­mo­tion spots, play-off places and rel­e­ga­tions are de­cided. The po­ten­tial fates of teams change through­out the af­ter­noon and the ten­sion is pal­pa­ble as some­times the en­tire mean­ing of a sea­son last­ing 69 hours, plus about six of in­jury-time, changes in the last five or ten min­utes.

In the thick of it to­day will be a team who’ve at­tracted a lot of Ir­ish at­ten­tion over the past cou­ple of years.

Pre­ston North End loomed large on our foot­ball radar af­ter they first signed Dun­dalk Euro­pean he­roes Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle and then swooped for Cork City’s goalscor­ing sen­sa­tion Seán Maguire.

Maguire (pic­tured) has en­joyed a de­cent sea­son with Pre­ston where he’s top scorer with ten league goals but Horgan, who’s strug­gled to make the team all sea­son, and Boyle, who’s been loaned to Don­caster Rovers, won’t fig­ure in to­day’s home match against Bur­ton Al­bion. How­ever, key roles will be played by a pair of un­der-rated Ir­ish­men who’ve been at the heart of an un­likely pro­mo­tion push by a team largely over­looked in the pre-sea­son pre­views.

Alan Browne’s de­par­ture from Cork City re­ceived noth­ing like the same at­ten­tion that greeted Maguire’s, yet he has been qui­etly build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for him­self. Still just 23, the mid­fielder has al­ready amassed over 150 ap­pear­ances in League One and the Cham­pi­onship and it was his win­ner last week at Sh­effield United that kept Pre­ston’s pro­mo­tion hopes alive. Two weeks pre­vi­ously, he’d hit a cru­cial win­ner against QPR.

When Manch­ester City’s Greg Cunningham won three caps at the age of 19 un­der Gio­vanni Tra­p­at­toni, a long in­ter­na­tional ca­reer seemed in store for the Gal­way­man. It hasn’t turned out that way for Cunningham; there’s been one cap since, in 2013, and a cou­ple of cruel in­juries at cru­cial times. Yet he’s still just 27 and has had a good sea­son in a Pre­ston side which also in­cludes winger Cal­lum Robin­son, who last month de­clared for Ire­land on the strength of his Mon­aghan­born grand­mother af­ter a long un­der­age in­ter­na­tional ca­reer with Eng­land.

To make the play-offs, Pre­ston need to beat Bur­ton and they also need Derby County to lose their home match against Barns­ley, who are locked in a rel­e­ga­tion bat­tle with Bur­ton, Bolton Wan­der­ers, Birm­ing­ham City and Read­ing.

Should Derby pre­vail the na­tion­ally minded among us can take con­so­la­tion from the fact that among their num­ber is that most gen­uine of war­riors, Richard Keogh, as well as Alex Pearce, who’s scored a cou­ple of goals for us against eter­nal friendly op­po­nents Oman. Mean­while, Cyrus Christie will be hop­ing to help the Ful­ham team he joined in Fe­bru­ary from Mid­dles­brough gain au­to­matic pro­mo­tion to the Pre­mier League. Ful­ham, who visit Birm­ing­ham, are a point be­hind Cardiff who host Read­ing, home of the na­tion­al­ity fluid Liam Kelly. Un­like Maguire, Browne and Cunningham, Christie will hope he doesn’t end up in the play-offs where As­ton Villa, thanks in part to an out­stand­ing sea­son from Ban­don’s Conor Houri­hane, will prob­a­bly meet Mid­dles­brough, who’ll have Dar­ren Ran­dolph be­tween the sticks.

The Cham­pi­onship is usu­ally viewed as a means to the end of reach­ing the Pre­mier League where riches lie in store. Yet it is an im­pres­sive com­pe­ti­tion in its own right with only two leagues in Europe, the Pre­mier and the Bun­desliga, at­tract­ing a higher spec­ta­tor to­tal last sea­son. The av­er­age home gate of 20,119 com­pares favourably with the 22,164 of Se­rie A.

The fail­ure of Horgan, one of the most gifted in­di­vid­u­als to have emerged from the League of Ire­land in decades, to thrive shows that mak­ing it in the sec­ond flight of English foot­ball still re­mains a con­sid­er­able achieve­ment. He may take en­cour­age­ment from the sea­son en­joyed by Richie Tow­ell who, loaned by Brighton to Rother­ham United, has con­trib­uted to that club’s run to the League One play-offs. An ap­pear­ance in a Wem­b­ley play-off fi­nal would an­swer at least some of the ‘what­ever hap­pened to him’ talk which has dogged the Dubliner since his move from Dun­dalk.

To­day though it’s all about The Cham­pi­onship.

It’s very tribal and un­so­phis­ti­cated of me but this af­ter­noon my fin­gers will be crossed for Pre­ston, their Kilken­ny­man, their Cork­man and their Gal­way­man.

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