Moving from the League of Ireland to the Championship is comparable to swapping the Eredivisie for the Premier League – for every Ruud van Nistelrooy, there’s an Afonso Alves.
No matter how good your record is amongst Ireland’s elite, there’s no guarantee that form can be replicated in the promised land of England’s Football League.
Reading’s double signing of Kevin Doyle (£99k) and Shane Long (£64k) – who would go on to amass a combined transfer fee total of over £30million to date – from Cork City in July 2005 represents the most successful bit of business between a Championship club and an Irish league side in recent times.
Seamus Coleman’s move from Sligo Rovers to Everton broke new ground – the Donegal man having established himself as one of the best full-backs in the Premier League and has become his national side’s captain since his £60k switch in 2009. James McClean hasn’t done bad for himself either, regardless of the former Derry City man being a regular public figure of hate.
However, falling into the ‘Afonso Alves’ category is Richie Towell, who has been limited to just one league appearance for Championship table-toppers Brighton since his January 2016 move to England.
Towell was the 2015 PFAI Player of the Year after being the standout performer in Dundalk’s domestic dominance that year, with the attacking midfielder scoring an incredible 29 goals as the Lilywhites secured a league and cup double.
That Towell – who, to be fair, has struggled with injuries at Brighton – has only been given a chance to shine in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy against Leyton Orient and AFC Wimbledon (scoring in both games) suggests manager Chris Hughton believes he would be more at home in the third or fourth tier of English football.
But fans of Preston North End should not assume the same will become of their new signing Daryl Horgan, who joined the club on January 1 after outgrowing the League of Ireland during Dundalk’s three consecutive league titles in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
A Damien Duff look-alike and play-alike, Horgan has shown enough to suggest that he is much better prepared for a higher level, taking to the Europa League with ease during Dundalk’s unprecedented run to group stages of the competition this season.
Despite suffering a 2-1 defeat to Zenit St Petersburg both home and away, Horgan was a constant threat to one of the tournament’s strongest teams, scoring a delightful equaliser on a swift counter-attack in Russia.
Against the other established Europa League sides in their group – AZ Alkmaar and Maccabi Tel Aviv – Horgan was an absolute menace, setting up two Ciaran Kilduff goals as Dundalk claimed four points in their opening two games. That set a standard he would live up to for Dundalk’s remaining four Group D games as they only just missed out on progressing in the last round of fixtures.
To be able to perform in the group stages of a European club competition was an opportunity not afforded to Towell, the League of Ireland’s previous best player, but Horgan showed sheer desire to make the most of his chance, and he’ll take comparable motivation with him to Deepdale.
Newcastle and Leeds – arguably bigger clubs who sit higher in the Championship table – showed an interest in Horgan, but Preston was the right choice because of the current Irish connection at the club.
The cultural difference between the Republic of Ireland and England is all too often misunderstood; settling in at an English club is by no means as simple as one might imagine.
While Towell may only have been able to somewhat relate to his manager Hughton, an English-born former Ireland international, Horgan will have no such shortage of compatriots to befriend at Preston.
For a start, he has his former Dundalk team-mate and captain Andy Boyle (himself a key player at centre-half for manager Stephen Kenny during the club’s European run) making the move over with him. Both players were included in Martin O’Neill’s Republic squad for November’s 1-0 win in Austria, one of the toughest games in their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, a sign of how highly the experienced O’Neill rates Horgan and indeed Boyle.
Both men will have been greeted at Deepdale by the Irish contingent already established at the club – players Greg Cunningham, Alan Browne and Eoin Doyle, while from a coaching perspective former Republic goalkeeper Alan Kelly will be on hand to help Horgan fit in.
For a new player coming over to England, having an Irish influence about their place of work should not be underestimated – perhaps that was the pivotal platform in the success of Reading’s double capture of Doyle and Long 11-and-a-half years ago.
Indeed, another Irish presence at Deepdale – Aidan McGeady – may also be able to help Horgan off the field, but on the field they’ll be in direct competition.
Horgan has looked comfortable in the No.10 role through the middle, but there’s no doubt he’s most at home on the wing, where McGeady has made a career out of being frustratingly inconsistent. At the peak of Horgan’s form last year, calls from fans and pundits alike were made in favour of pitting the Galway native ahead of McGeady in the Ireland pecking order.
Playing full of confidence and at a higher level – the Europa League – the case was strong for Horgan, but O’Neill’s notable relationship with McGeady, which stretches back to their Celtic days, got in the way and, as yet, Preston’s new winger remains uncapped at senior level.
But that is likely to change in 2017 as Horgan, 24, sets about the next chapter of his career.
Preston’s 1-0 win over Burton on Monday will have come too soon for his debut having only officially joined on New Year’s Day, while Saturday’s FA Cup third round visit from Arsenal may also prove a little early to be thrown in.
That said, should manager Simon Grayson decide to experiment against the Gunners, Horgan will – as ever – be ready to embrace the next level.