BY KEVIN O’NEILL
Had any Preston North End supporters been ignorant to the recent European conquests of Dundalk – the champions of the Republic of Ireland – then their club’s pre-Christmas double signing of Irish duo Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan might not have raised the slightest bit of excitement.
And yet, if they show patience and support in the duo’s early days at the club, Preston could find that manager Simon Grayson has pulled off a tremendous transfer coup by taking centre-back Boyle and attacking winger Horgan to Deepdale – and particularly in the case of the latter, who has already been deemed ready enough, by the experienced Grayson, to enter the first-team fray.
Horgan, undoubtedly, is the more naturally gifted of the two; a wide attacker capable of operating on either flank and most adept playing from the left, allowing him to cut inside to his more favoured right foot. He has experience, too, of playing from a more central position; of probing and trying to pick holes in opposition defences but to date the bulk of his best work has been done from the wings.
His form in the last three seasons, helping Dundalk to three consecutive League of Ireland titles, has been nothing short of outstanding, earning many admirers at home and abroad. Indeed, the consistency and sharpness of his displays has been so impressive that countless times before an eventual call-up to the Irish senior squad late last year, many observers wondered why he had been overlooked for some time by Martin O’Neill, who admirably kept tabs on his progress by attending many Dundalk matches during last year, thus giving encouragement to domestic players that if they impress enough, O’Neill remains open about calling on League of Ireland players (unlike predecessor Giovanni Trappatoni, who paid scant regard to the domestic league).
There then came a point when O’Neill decided he could not continue to ignore Horgan’s magical performances for the Lilywhites. And along with Boyle, he was drafted in to the Ireland squad for the World Cup qualifier against Austria.
Perhaps Horgan’s cause was aided somewhat when his name was linked to a host of British clubs, including Championship promotion favourites Newcastle United.
But aside from that, it was his natural ability – seen to perfection when Dundalk came close to becoming the first ever Irish team to reach the UEFA Champions League group stage before almost qualifying from their group in the Europa League – that proved to O’Neill and a host of others, probably including Grayson, that Horgan is, in fact, the real deal capable of competing productively against more experienced and recognised players.
Yet, for Horgan to properly hone the talent developed in the youth ranks at Salthill Devon (in County Galway), he had to take some brave decisions in his early career.
Traditionally, or maybe habitually is a finer way of putting it, domestic Irish players tend to represent clubs in their geographic region.
For example, players like Horgan, from the west, normally play for teams such as Galway United and Sligo Rovers.
They might go as far as the midland region or sometimes to Limerick, which is close by anyway. But rarely does a Galwegian, like Horgan, venture far down south to Cork City, where Horgan’s career sparked to life after a season in the second tier with Salthill Devon, as a talented but raw 18-year-old, and a rather uneventful short stay in the top division with Sligo Rovers, where the current Portsmouth manager Paul Cook signed him but couldn’t offer a regular starting berth.
Not only was Horgan prepared to explore a path unfamiliar for westerners, he also showed a certain amount of humility when agreeing to join Cork (on loan) and their battle to get out of the second tier after off-field problems led to demotion for breaching financial rules.
For sure, he could have taken the easy option by staying in the top-flight with Sligo and playing a bit-part role. Instead, he showed the desire to play week in and week out, and it didn’t seem to matter if that required relinquishing his status as a Premier Division player.
There, Horgan contributed heavily to Cork’s First Division title win, leading to a permanent contract at Turner’s Cross. And over the next two seasons, Horgan was instrumental in consolidating City’s place back in the Premier Division. He developed rapidly in the Rebel County with Cork boss Tommy Dunne getting the very best out of him, thereby turning exciting but largely unproven potential to consistent productivity, and the passionate Cork supporters really took Horgan to their hearts.
However, in the pursuit of honours and European recognition, he eventually signed for ambitious Dundalk ahead of the 2014 season, having had trials with Barnsley and Torquay United in the Irish off-season.
And if one thought that Horgan might have peaked at Cork, they were mistaken.
For it was with Dundalk, where manager Stephen Kenny (once of Dunfermline Athletic in Scotland) has completely transformed the club, where Horgan’s class really came to the fore.
In his debut season, he won the PFAI Young Player of the Year, as Dundalk won the League and League Cup. A League and FAI Cup (the country’s most important cup competition) followed in 2015 before a hat-trick of League titles was sealed last year.
All the while, Horgan was showing great flair, accuracy from set-pieces and the ability to score and assist, and when Dundalk faced more fearsome opponents in Europe, Horgan never shied away from the challenge and often led the Lilywhites to produce performances that some people felt beyond their ability.
For example, his goal in Dundalk’s Europa League tie away against Zenit St Petersburg was a real classy effort, as he showed speed, awareness and composure when breaking through on goal from a long way out.
Otherwise, Horgan is full of incisive and clever movement and his passing and short, sharp bursts of action are laced with conviction and genuine intent to hurt the opposition.
He has never been a winger who waits for the ball to come his way. Instead, he makes it happen by drifting in areas where he can influence matters, while also showing the right discipline and tactical acumen to know when and how to do so.
His assured manner in possession, coupled with a head-down, hard grafting attitude not always instilled in creative wingers, meant that a transfer to England was probably always going to be the next big step in Horgan’s development. For his future at international level, for example, was probably depending on it.
And in his mid-twenties, it looks like Horgan has not only chosen a perfect time to take the big step, but also selected a club that seem prepared to provide ample playing time to showcase his talent.
Remember, his former Dundalk team-mates Pat Hoban and Richie Towell – both crucial players for the Lilywhites before signing for Oxford United and Brighton respectively – have not exactly pulled up any trees since crossing the water.
Indeed, Towell’s fall from grace – going from the massive stand-out player in the League of Ireland to not even making Chris Hughton’s match day squads – has been pretty astounding, and his career, having looked so promising back home, has stalled completely since leaving Oriel Park.
So, picking the right club was always going to be one of Horgan’s greatest challenges and after impressing greatly on his first league start last weekend – tormenting Brighton for much of the game and setting up Preston’s second goal in a fine 2-0 win (in front of watching Irish assistant manager Roy Keane) – Horgan most definitely has the trust of manager Grayson; a really massive thing for an Irish player to acquire in the teething stages of an English adventure.
“Daryl was involved in the squad at the weekend and Andy (Boyle) hasn’t been quite yet but sometimes it’s easier to incorporate an attacking player into your squad than a defender,” Grayson said after Horgan’s debut against Arsenal in the FA Cup.
“Defenders get punished very quickly if you’re not careful and Andy’s still learning how we work as a back three and as a back five. As an attacking player there isn’t as much emphasis on when you make a mistake but I certainly see both players playing a big part in this football club, hence why they’re here,” Grayson added in an Irish radio interview.
The Preston boss, who has also managed Huddersfield Town and Leeds United in recent years, has not yet given a solid indication about when Boyle might join Horgan in the match day squad.
But as Boyle has shown in his career so far, he has a determined, hard working character and will, no doubt, fight very hard in the coming months to force his way in the first-team set-up. In any case, there is no major rush and Boyle, having turned down advances from several English clubs in his teens in favour of getting a proper education, has grown used to waiting for the right time.
Like Horgan, a lot of his career has been spent grafting and learning his trade in Irish football’s semi-professional second tier before moving to Dundalk for the 2013 season.
From there, he picked up three League titles and two domestic Cups, as well as captaining Dundalk many times.
And although his rise to English and international football was not as predicted as Horgan’s, Boyle would appear to have the heart, determination and positional sense to make a positive long-term impression at Deepdale, where fellow Irishmen Alan Browne, Greg Cunningham and Aidan McGeady (on loan from Everton) are currently helping the club to try to make a dart for the end-of-season play-offs.
“These guys (Boyle and Horgan) have done it in the Europa League, in the Champions League when they’ve played against top opposition,” Grayson told RTE’s Off the Ball show.
“When I got a chance to meet them I was really impressed by their attitude and their hunger to succeed and ultimately we had to fight off quite a bit of competition for both players. The one thing I could do with both players is work with them and give them an opportunity in the Championship and see where their career goes from there,” he added.
If initial impressions are anything to go by then Horgan could have a fair chance of following in the footsteps of players like Seamus Coleman, Shane Long and Kevin Doyle, who firmly established themselves in England having moved from the League of Ireland.
For Boyle, it could take a bit longer to make a firm mark but anyone familiar with his work ethic and defensive nous won’t be surprised if he cements a place in the Preston side in the coming months.
Overall, Simon Grayson and the Preston fans can be more than pleased with how Horgan, in particular, has taken to life in England.
As free agents on the expiry of their Dundalk contracts, both players were very attractive propositions for many English sides outside the Premier League.
And in the fullness of time, one imagines that Preston’s ability to pip their divisional rivals to their signatures will be looked back on as a rather shrewd investment, indeed.