Comment: Six Irish League stars who could follow Paul Smyth into full-time football
Queens Park Rangers manager Ian Holloway described throwing former Linfield starlet Paul Smyth into the lion's den against Cardiff City on Monday as his 'biggest gamble' as a manager.
Well, it certainly paid dividends for him as the 20-year-old scored the winning goal against Neil Warnock's outfit and underlined just what an exciting talent he is.
Local fans, especially Linfield ones, know that already. They watched him precociously burst into the Blues side having come through their Academy after moving from Crumlin Colts and, like Holloway, Warren Feeney must take an awful lot of credit for handing him his chance.
He continued his development under David Healy before his move to west London, where he patiently awaited his opportunity and grabbed it with both hands.
Already a key member of Ian Baraclough's Under-21s, it is only a matter of time before Michael O'Neill comes calling on his services. He already knows what Smyth is all about having given him the opportunity of training with the full Northern Ireland panel at the Euros.
It is no mean feat for one so young to make an impact in the rough and tumble, cut-throat world of the professional game, and at only 20 adapting to life in London.
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As his former team-mate Andy Waterworth said earlier this week: "We're delighted for the Irish League as a whole. Our league is a great springboard for players to move into the professional game."
He should know, he did just that himself before returning home where his full-time experience shines through, and being a fan of the local game he knows there are more young stars coming through who could follow Smyth's trailblazing path.
So, here are my ones to watch. Selfishly, fans here hope they don't all go elsewhere as we'd miss their talents, and some may not get the chance, but if more managers like Holloway take a punt then we'll be celebrating.
Gavin Whyte (Crusaders)
No surprise with this one, he has been nothing short of sensational in the Crues' unbelievable run. A victim of the dreaded 'second season syndrome', he has emerged from that even better and hungrier than when he first scampered onto the scene. He is now adding a final product to his bamboozling build-up play, and if he isn't in the running for the Player of the Year awards come May, the world will have completely lost the run of itself.
Bobby Burns (Glenavon)
Just imagine how good he would be if he could play in his favourite position. The Northern Ireland Under-18 captain has played just about everywhere for the Lurgan Blues and if he was about six inches taller he'd probably be nudging Jonny Tuffey out of the way in goals. Centre midfield is his chosen position, but as the Bodie to Andrew Mitchell's Doyle, they are forging an unlikely little and large strike duo. He can also play left-back and on the wing, which is handy because there's no doubt he'll be flying across the water to the full-time game in the near future.
Kofi Balmer (Ballymena United)
"He's a giant of a young man at 17 years of age, he's an absolute class act and continues to want to learn" - the words of a man who knows a thing or two about central defenders; David Jeffrey. Balmer has only played a handful of games but the Sky Blues have a star on their hands, and he very much reminds me of Johnny Flynn when he burst through at Warden Street and landed a cross-channel move. He has just penned a three-and-a-half-year deal at the Showgrounds. I will be very surprised if he sees that out.
Lorcan Forde (Warrenpoint Town)
The only surprise given where he plays is that he isn't called Murray, but the local boy doing good is more than making his own name in the game. He has been at the club since he was nine and, although he began as a striker (where he was top scorer at the Milk Cup), he has become a hugely talented creative midfield force for the men from the Mournes. Still only 18, he has the world at his very talented tootsies.
Jonah Mitchell (Ards)
The teenage striker joined Ards from Linfield and announced himself in the north Down side's thumping of Glenavon earlier in the season. He is still very raw, and probably needs to become more selfish to add goals to his boundless enthusiasm, but he has really impressed me when I have seen him.
Ryan Strain (Linfield)
No matter what he achieves in the game he is already a history maker - he was the first player born in the 2000s to play in the Linfield first team. This means two things: 1. He is rather good; and 2. I feel very old. With the Blues capable of going out and landing big names, it makes it ever harder for young players to get their chance, but he need look no further than Paul Smyth to show what can be done.
So there you have it, there are my six to watch and there were many more I could have chosen. I deliberately ignored Mark Sykes as football may as well call it a day if he doesn't get a move to the mainland soon. There is also his team-mate Rhys Marshall, and Coleraine have Jamie McGonigle, Brad Lyons, Chris Johns and Ciaron Harkin who all have a chance, while at Crusaders there are young stars like Ryan Nimick and Ross Holden to keep an eye on.
There are many others across the league; a league that is far too often criticised for its quality but, if you're not a fan, be like Ian Holloway - take a gamble and give it a chance.
Out on the wing
Burns and Crues are too hot to handle
Crusaders are, quite frankly, just taking the hand out of us all now with their pesky all-conquering ways that have seen them jump to the top of the table.
Monday’s win at Ballinamallard means they now squeeze past Coleraine to go top after an incredible unbeaten run of 18 games in all competitions, 17 of them wins, with goals galore.
And talking of goals, Roy Carroll has kept a fair few out in his time but he won’t have conceded many better (apart from one by Pedro Mendes against Spurs but we’ll gloss over that) than the one Billy Joe Burns hit past him on whatever day it was over the festive period.
I’ve lost track, it’s like trying to keep up with Crusaders’ wins.
Stew-pendous things going on at Larne
Things, quite frankly, are just going a bit mad at Larne Football Club now with the news that Thomas Stewart is the latest to sign for them.
Rumours that Philippe Coutinho has been spotted on Shane’s Hill remain, as yet, unfounded, but nothing would really surprise me at the minute.
Stewart arrives from Dundalk after plying his trade across the globe to join Tiernan Lynch’s revolutionary force.
That is the basis of a team that could hold its own in the Premiership, which, I guess, is the next logical step. One thing is for sure, the second half of the Championship season is going to be one worth watching.
Local football goes to Eleanor and back
I got a fair bit of flak for opening up the summer football debate a few weeks ago when we had a bit of snow, but it seems a bit of festive wind (and who isn’t guilty of that?) really causes a stink.
Of the New Year games, five fell foul of the weather, three of them abandoned halfway through on Storm Eleanor’s visit on Tuesday evening, with Coleraine feeling the biggest pinch as they lost the money-spinning visit of Linfield on Monday.
Plastic pitches may be one answer, but this is not foolproof as freezing conditions also have to be dealt with in and around the ground.
With more wet weather to come, it’s likely an already clogged-up fixture list will be added to.
I don’t have the answers, but maybe it would be better if we tried to find a few solutions rather than bury our heads in the mud/snow/sand.
Hearty congratulations to my old pal Liam Beckett on the MBE he picked up in the New Year Honours earlier in the week. A well-deserved accolade for a man who lives and breathes football, knows a thing or two about motorbikes and, more importantly, has done a hell of a lot for charity. LB MBE, sounds good.