European heroes prove Colin O'Neill wrong, says Sproule
Ivan Sproule has responded to Colin O'Neill's criticism of the Irish League by suggesting the former Northern Ireland international take a look at the make-up of the current squad.
O'Neill had a swipe at what he believes are falling standards in the local game in the Belfast Telegraph earlier this week, sparking great debate among many observers.
Sproule believes that the stinging comments were wide of the mark - and not only because the Linfield winger can see an improvement in the game here since he played for Omagh Town and Institute before joining Hibernian a decade ago.
Five ex-Irish League players are set to represent their country at next summer's Euro 2016 finals in France and Sproule, who won 11 caps himself, believes that is a sign of the quality that exists within the domestic game.
Sproule played most of his football in the Scottish Premier League and English Championship during an eight-year spell in the full-time game, so he has seen enough action at various levels to see where the Irish League stands in comparison.
Sproule had other ex-Irish League players in the shape of Michael Ingham, Gareth McAuley, Stuart Elliott and Andy Smith for company when he was pulling on the green shirt and he believes the fact that Alan Mannus, McAuley, Stuart Dallas, Niall McGinn and Liam Boyce are all likely to be in Michael O'Neill's European Championship squad is a huge positive.
"I think you only have to look at the number of ex-Irish League boys in the national team squad to see what the game here can produce," said Sproule.
"When I was in England and Scotland the league here got a lot of stick at times from people over there, but I always stuck up for it because I believe that the quality is there.
"You see how well Liam Boyce has done at Ross County and that's what's coming out of our league, so it's good.
"The thing is, when these players leave the league it does drain the quality, as we've seen in the last couple of seasons when Boyce and Joe Gormley have left Cliftonville.
"On the other hand you have lads like Chris Hegarty coming back to Linfield from Rangers, Daniel Kearns who has just signed for Linfield who was at Peterborough and Levi Ives who came back from Torquay to Cliftonville recently and because they have that experience at a higher level, it lifts the standard here.
"Even look at older players like Gary Twigg at Portadown. There is some excellent talent in the league."
Sproule, who will turn 35 in February, showed that he can still light up the league with a cool finish that secured three points for Linfield at Dungannon last weekend.
He will now look to end Crusaders' 13-match unbeaten run when the top two do battle in the Danske Bank Premiership at Windsor Park this afternoon.
He will come up against a couple of players he acknowledges as among the best around at the minute and if the talented players do their stuff it could be a cracker.
"I would pick out the two Crusaders boys, Gavin Whyte and Paul Heatley, in particular as two real talents. We played Dungannon Swifts, who are further down the table, last Saturday and there are talented boys in their team too," said Sproule.
"When Dungannon came to Windsor Park earlier in the season they played some of the best football I've seen here in a long time.
"I watched the Manchester derby a couple of weeks ago. You're talking about two clubs that have spent hundreds of millions of pounds on players and I would rather have watched an Irish League game.
"It's easy to put the league down, but there are a lot of good things about it.
"I could have gone to the League of Ireland when I came home and earned more money, but I wanted to play for Linfield."