In an English football ladder dominated by powerbrokers at the top of the Premier League, the FA Cup has the ability to provide a platform for Irish players to prosper.
Top-flight teams reshuffle their sides, particularly in the Covid-19 era, to give those on the fringes some exposure, while players operating in the lower tiers can have a crack at both causing an upset and optimising the showcase.
Here, we select 10 of this weekend’s third round ties with an Irish angle to them.
Jake O’Brien: SWINDON TOWN v Manchester City (8pm).
What an introduction to senior English football it would be for Cork native Jake O’Brien to feature against the Premier League champions. The centre-back only joined Swindon Town earlier this week, his first loan deal granted by Crystal Palace since recruited from Cork City last year, and he goes straight into the League Two side’s squad.
A Covid-19 outbreak has put Pep Guardiola and seven of his players into isolation but O’Brien can regardless expect to face a glittering attack at the County Ground.
Aaron Connolly: Mansfield v MIDDLESBROUGH (12.30pm).
Some team is going to get the brunt of the frustration built up in Connolly for another punctuated season at Brighton. Chris Wilder has this week offered the Galwegian a change of scenery in the Championship and the loan capture is in line to feature against the League Two outfit. Mansfield have their Irish contingent too in Stephen Quinn, JJ O’Toole, and Stephen McLaughlin.
They won’t make it easy for Connolly to make an early splash.
Jamie Devitt: Barnsley v BARROW UNITED (3pm).
Devitt has been on the English club circuit since breaking onto the scene as a teenager at Hull City and is still functioning well at 31. Barrow are struggling in League Two and the Dublin-born midfielder is coming back from injury but together they’ll fancy toppling a Barnsley side second from bottom in the Championship and with bigger priorities. Devitt has some good memories of cup competitions, including helping specialists Newport County through the early FA Cup rounds last season.
Wes Hoolahan: Newcastle Utd v CAMBRIDGE UTD (3pm).
The last thing Newcastle need in their time of desperation is a 39-year-old dominating their midfield. Moreover, Stephen Kenny could do without that midfield being dazzled to include Jeff Hendrick.
Still, Hoolahan has the nous and guile to mesmerise, irrespective of the opposition. Cambridge’s management of his game-time has been integral to Hoolahan’s longevity but manager Mark Bonner admits the experience of his stalwart will be needed in the cauldron of St James’ Park. Reduced ticket prices have attracted a 52,000 sell-out.
Evan Ferguson: West Bromwich Albion v BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION (3pm).
At just 17, Ferguson has replaced Troy Parrott as the next hyped home-grown hope to become the delayed successor to Robbie Keane. The forward from Meath is well ahead of his peers in terms of physical development and Graham Potter has suggested he’ll gradually integrate him into the fray, having kept him on the bench for two Premier League matches over Christmas. A cameo, adding to the EFL Cup appearance he made last season, won’t be a surprise.
Sean McLoughlin: HULL CITY v Everton (5.30pm).
Patience has been a necessity since the Corkman joined Hull two-and-a-half years ago. His loan stint at St Mirren chiseled him for higher platforms but he was a peripheral figure in the Tigers’ promotion run to the Championship last season. He’s got a break in the side for the past two months and will be confident of staying there for the visit of Everton. Hull are capable of heaping more pressure on Rafa Benitez.
Gavin Gunning: Chelsea v CHESTERFIELD (5.30pm).
From the same Crumlin United schoolboy team as Conor Clifford and Richie Towell, Gunning snubbed bigger clubs to accept a bumper contract off Blackburn Rovers. He made the bench under Sam Allardyce but moved on to various outfits, mostly notably Dundee United where he lined up in a defence alongside a fledgling Andy Robertson. Now captain of Conference leaders Chesterfield, the 30-year-old might have the job of shackling Romelu Lukaku and will relish the task.
Courtney Duffus: Tottenham Hotspur v MORECAMBE (2pm).
Former Ireland U21 striker Duffus has led a nomadic existence since departing his first club Everton, even sampling the League of Ireland where he led Waterford’s attack in 2018, their first Premier Divisi