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11 Greatest Irish Footballers to Celebrate St. Patrick's Day

Tom SunderlandFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2014

11 Greatest Irish Footballers to Celebrate St. Patrick's Day

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    Martin Meissner/Associated Press

    In the spirit of St. Patrick's Day, it's time to celebrate all that is Irish. And in tribute to the Emerald Isle, we've compiled a list of the 11 greatest players ever to have pulled on the green of this wonderful part of the world.

    Including players from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the rankings take into account factors such as total appearances, a player's impact for their respective team and goals scored, but so talented are this particular bunch that the standings are open to interpretation.

    Down the years, some truly talented individuals have sprung from this small corner of the world, and the cream of the crop are outlined ahead.

    Feel free to give us your take on the rankings or point out any glaring omissions in the forum below.

Honourable Mentions

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    Steve Staunton

    Very unfortunate to miss out on a place in the top XI, Steve Staunton's Republic of Ireland career saw him make a remarkable 102 appearances for his national team, the fourth-highest tally of any southern Irishman.

    A talented asset in both defence and midfield, Staunton would later go on to have a short stint as manager of his former represented nation as well as boasting a high-profile club career, most notably with Aston Villa and Liverpool.

     

    Ray Houghton

    Though born in Glasgow, Ray Houghton qualified for the Republic of Ireland team through his father's roots, clocking up more than 70 caps in an 11-year international tenure.

    The ex-midfielder saw his best days with Fulham, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace, and his 1-0 winners against England at the 1988 European Championship, and Italy at the 1994World Cup have gone down in Irish folklore.

     

    Richard Dunne

    Some say that when cut, Richard Dunne bleeds green. However, we all know that to be false, such is the tough-tackling, battle-hardened nature of the centre-back's game.

    Though his best days are most certainly behind him, Dunne's international career is ongoing since making his debut in 2000. Though his career has been blotted somewhat by a tendency for own goals, Dunne's prominence in the Republic of Ireland defence has made him a national legend down the years. 

     

    Niall Quinn

    Ninety-one caps collected throughout a 16-year career for the Republic of Ireland makes Niall Quinn the seventh-most experienced player ever to have represented the Boys in Green, and his 21 goals in that period is the second-highest scoring total, too.

    Arsenal, Manchester City and Sunderland each benefited from the striker's scoring antics, and the man from Dublin enjoyed a glitzy career through the 1980s, '90s and early 2000s.

11. Pat Jennings

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    To date, no other player has made more appearances for Northern Ireland than Pat Jennings, and there isn't any sign of the ex-goalkeeper's 119-cap record being broken anytime soon.

    Jennings stood guard for the Green and White Army for 22 years, making his full debut in 1964 before finally calling it quits on his career in 1986.

    Jennings was a rarity in that his club and national career ended almost in unison, but it showed just how undroppable a figure he was for the side that such strong form could be maintained to such a high standard.

    Jennings was a rarity of another form, too, making 673 games for Tottenham Hotspur, per the club's official profile, before then making the move to local rivals Arsenal, making 327 appearances, per the Gunners' official website.

10. Packie Bonner

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    And it's another goalkeeper, Packie Bonner, who claims the No. 10 place on our countdown. He was one of Donegal's finest exports and a stalwart between the sticks for the Republic of Ireland through a 15-year period.

    Bonner made 80 appearances for his national team, and that total may have reached the 100 mark were it not for a dip in quality toward the mid-1990s, a chance that Alan Kelly Jr. pounced on, taking the No. 1 jersey as his own.

    A one-club man at the professional level, Bonner spent his entire career at Celtic after moving from Keadue Rovers in 1978, winning four Scottish League titles, three Scottish Cups and a Scottish League Cup with the Bhoys.

    The stopper was Jock Stein's last-ever signing at Parkhead, and what a move it turned out to be.

9. Johnny Giles

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    One of the best midfielders ever to have played for the Republic of Ireland—and arguably the best central midfielder—Johnny Giles' national career soared alongside a glittering club record that saw him win every domestic honour in English football.

    Starting off his career as a 17-year-old with Manchester United, Giles was a part of the latter Busby Babes era, but later went on to enjoy his most trophy-laden period as part of Don Revie's Leeds United.

    Due to the fact that international friendlies and matches of the sort were fewer and far between back then, the playmaker earned just 57 caps for the Republic, but that low tally in comparison to others on this list is no indication of less talent.

    Giles would later go on to manage the Republic of Ireland, vastly improving their international reputation at the time and almost leading the team to the 1978 World Cup.

8. Shay Given

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    As we'll discuss later, only one player trumps the 125 caps that Shay Given boasts from his days as a Republic of Ireland goalkeeper. His career ended in 2012, 16 years after the stopper made his debut after having impressed as a youngster on loan at Swindon Town and Sunderland.

    Given just about edges his hero Bonner to the throne of his nation's greatest ever goalkeeper, but one can certainly debate which of the two performed best for their country.

    Given's club standards have dropped off with age, his best days coming in a 12-year Newcastle United stay—but the Aston Villa reserve can never lost his standing in the eyes of any Republic of Ireland fan.

7. Denis Irwin

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    Released by Leeds United as a teenager, Denis Irwin defied the odds to see out an incredibly successful career for both club and country with Manchester United and the Republic of Ireland, respectively.

    After being signed from Oldham Athletic in 1990, the full-back played a big part in the most successful period of the Red Devils' history but is often understated for his consistency and reliability.

    And it was in this time that the left-back—also capable of playing on the other side of defence—enjoyed his international stint with the Republic, debuting in the same year as his move to Old Trafford before retiring from the international scene in 1990.

    Irwin represented his country at the 1994 World Cup and will forever be remembered as the best left-back that the Republic of Ireland has seen to date. He's a figure they've yet to replace.

6. Frank Stapleton

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    At the time of his international retirement in 1990, Frank Stapleton's 20 goals for the Republic of Ireland stood as the all-time record, a tally amassed over the course of 71 outings.

    Willing to endanger his club career for the international cause, Stapleton had a contract inserted in each one of his club contracts stipulating that he be free to represent his nation at any opportunity—such was his sense of patriotism.

    The forward' best days came with Manchester United and Arsenal, for whom he racked up more than 580 appearances combined, but his talents were also seen in Holland and France with Ajax and Le Havre, respectively.

5. Paul McGrath

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    Forever regarded as a story of what could have been, Paul McGrath nevertheless battled through chronic knee issues and alcoholism to take his place as one of the Republic of Ireland's greatest players.

    When it comes to Irish defenders, the ex-centre-back—whose most prolific club form came during stints with Manchester United and Aston Villa—is in a league of his own.

    As vital as the aforementioned Houghton was in recording that historic 1-0 win over Italy in 1994, McGrath was a titan that day, truly cementing his place as a player of the elite standard and stopping Roberto Baggio's Azzurri from penetrating the Irish line time and time again.

    That being said, McGrath's tale of defiance and rebellion was no flash-in-the-pan story. His 83 caps being the ninth-highest sum ever reached by a Republic of Ireland player, including a respectable tally of eight goals along with it.

4. Robbie Keane

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    The Republic of Ireland's all-time leading goalscorer by quite some margin, Robbie Keane, capped 131 times, currently captains his country and is still going strong, having found a new life with the Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer.

    With 62 goals to his name, Keane averages just under a goal every other game for his national team, which is very strong going for a 33-year-old supposedly entering his twilight years.

    Since making his senior debut for Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1997, the striker has gone on to represent no fewer than 10 clubs, most notably including Coventry City, Tottenham, Inter, Leeds United and Liverpool.

    Keane's status on the international stage is so cemented thanks to not only the longevity of his Ireland career, now in its 16th year, but his proficiency in scoring regardless of the opposition.

    Due to the Republic's lack of qualification for major tournaments over the last 20 years, Keane hasn't always had the chance to prove himself on the biggest stages, but has still managed to score against the likes of Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands.

3. Liam Brady

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    Stapleton's contributions for the Republic of Ireland were great, but the forward may not have enjoyed nearly as prolific an international tenure were it not for the service provided by Liam Brady.

    Brady is something of an anomaly on this list in that it's his club form for which the attacking midfielder-cum-winger is most fondly remembered, with his longest spell coming at Arsenal before spending the majority of the 1980s playing in Italy.

    And in that, Brady's kind are growing extinct, the creative maestro managing to win two Serie A titles with Juventus, before also making a success of his times at Sampdoria, Inter and, less so, Ascoli.

    The trickster's footwork sits as arguably the best ever seen by a Republic player, and Brady's talents when it came to passing range and constructing chances for those around him laid the foundations for a 72-cap haul between 1975 and 1990.

2. Roy Keane

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    Ask anyone outside the British Isles to name a player who has represented the Republic of Ireland, and one can make a safe bet that the first name uttered is Roy Keane.

    His time representing the national team was mired with controversy and a falling-out with then manager Mick McCarthy at the 2002 World Cup sent shockwaves through the football community.

    However, there's no denying the sheer talent that one of the sport's best-ever central midfielders brought to the team in the midst of earning 67 caps between 1991 and 2005.

    Despite being sent home from that 2002 tournament, the ex-Manchester United talisman will still go down as arguably the best player ever to have represented the Republic, despite any personal grievances or misgivings with Keane as a man.

    Now assistant coach to Martin O'Neill in the national team's setup, the no-nonsense figure of Keane will attempt to make up for any bad blood there be between him and green of Ireland.

1. George Best

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    And it's another former Manchester United hero that tops the list, with George Best challenging some of the biggest names in the business for the honour of greatest player to have ever lived. 

    It's a common occurrence around Old Trafford to hear "Maradona good, Pele better, George Best," showing precisely just how lauded the Belfast native was not just among his own fans, but the world audience, too.

    The troubled nature of his persona off the pitch meant that Best never reached the kind of numbers displayed by others included on our countdown, with Best managing just nine goals in 37 outings for Northern Ireland.

    Able to play out wide, more centrally or up front, Best's career with United saw him make 470 appearances for the club, scoring 179 goals, per the official Manchester United website.

    Following that spell, the most stable of his career, Best would represent a myriad of clubs on a short-term basis before retiring in 1984.

    Having battled with alcoholism for much of his playing days, Best passed away on Nov. 25, 2005, going down as one of the saddest tales ever to surround a player of such immense potential.

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