by Leighton Cullen

For players like Stephen Ward, James McClean, Kevin Doyle, and Shane Long this Euro 2012 will cap a dramatic rise from League of Ireland football to playing in one of the biggest tournaments of their lives. All four would have laughed at the mere notion when they first began in such humble environments and it reflects well on Ireland – already viewed as the likable underdogs – to have such players within their ranks who’ll be relishing the experience rather than seeing the event as a natural, inevitable extension of their career path.

Kevin Doyle started out with St Pats before making his move to Cork City. His record for Cork was good – 25 goals in 76 games, a 1 in 3 average which was a solid return considering he started as a winger before being switched inside.

Reading took a punt and Doyle immediately proved the higher level was to his liking, scoring for fun and becoming an instant revelation. In his first season alone he notched 19 which propelled the club to promotion.

His debut in the top flight was equally a success – 13 priceless goals ensuring safety for the Berkshire side.

Doyle has since become a main stay in the Irish team as well as his new club Wolves. He will lead the line with Robbie Keane this summer and a good Euros could well see him on the move again.

Shane Long had the least experience of League of Ireland football only playing the solitary game for Cork City where he was snapped up along with Kevin Doyle to head over to Reading. The scouts seen the talent of the hard working lad from Tipperary and he has gone from strength to strength gradually establishing himself on English shores and becoming a pivotal figure at West Brom. Possessing bags of speed and a commendable work ethic Long may have to settle for a place on the bench against Croatia but Trapattoni values him highly and he is expected to feature at some point.

Stephen Ward started out as a striker for Bohenians with 26 goals in 93 games ensuring a move across the water to Wolves. But in a strange development Ward went from striker to left full-back, a switch that has paid off handsomely. Though Wolves’ defence was at times abject last year Ward can personally hold his head up high after a string of consistent and whole-hearted displays that gained the attention of a number of Premier League clubs. He has also now cemented his place as Trap’s first choice left-back for Ireland.

James McClean was undoubtedly the find of the EPL season, enjoying a breakthrough into prominence and the nation’s back pages that amazed all who witnessed it. At Derry City he endured relegation from the Irish Premier League before helping them bounce back at the first time of asking with a number of brilliant performances. His progress continued the following year and had the scouts from England heading over in their droves with Sunderland winning the fight for his signature.

Frustratingly a period of acclimatisation followed under Steve Bruce but one of the first things Martin O’Neill did upon arrival at Wearside was to throw his fellow countryman into the fray and McClean responded beyond anyone’s expectations.

In years to come he is destined to replace Damien Duff on the international stage but this summer James may have to be content to playing  a bit-part role.

Even so, from League of Ireland football to the Euros within a year is quite some going for the 23 year old.

The League of Ireland’s Fantastic Four should really be six had both Keith Fahey and Seamus Coleman been selected as widely expected. Instead they fell victim to the madness of Trap.

It does illustrate however that Irish football remains a fertile breeding ground for major talent. There are gems out there just waiting to be discovered.