Joe Gormley signed a three-year deal with Peterborough United only 18 months ago, with much expected of the young man who had been top scorer in the Irish League for two successive seasons and a key component in the back-to-back league titles won by the Reds. Just two seasons later, Joe is heading back to Solitude after failing to score a single goal in professional football.
It would be unfair to Joe not to mention the terrible injury he suffered almost immediately on arrival after only playing five games for Posh; ruling him out for the rest of the season. A loan to St. Johnstone didn’t work out and subsequently Joe will be heading home, ready for the 2017/18 season (much to the delight of Cliftonville fans, no doubt hoping he can recapture his form at Solitude).
Had Joe not sustained that brutal injury, things would have panned out differently but it gives us a chance to look at the fate of recent Irish League exports and whether they have been able to have an impact on the wider game.
The ideal place to start would be another Cliftonville striker - Liam Boyce. His similar goalscoring exploits helped Tommy Breslin’s side achieve a “double double” of League and League Cup trophies in the 2012/13 and 2013/14 seasons. Since leaving for Ross County in the summer of 2014, he has now played in front of over 30,000 in a Scottish League Cup triumph and is the joint second highest goalscorer this season with 13 league goals. It’s certainly been a smooth transition piece.
On the other hand, former Irish League top goalscorer and Linfield hit man Peter Thompson couldn’t make the breakthrough in England with Stockport County in 2008 - returning to Linfield in 2010. However, whether a player manages to crack it at a full-time level or not can often obscure the benefits that the league gains when players bring the experience of having been with a full time side back to the Irish League.
Players who’ve been exposed to a full-time league can bring expertise and knowledge with them back to younger players, who in turn learn directly from old hands as many young Northern Irish players cut their teeth in the local game. This is not to dismiss the knowledge and expertise of those who’ve not operated in full-time football or to say that training when it happens isn’t professional but giving young players a proper mindset in how to conduct themselves on and off the field can only be a benefit to young players.
This can work for players who did not play in Northern Ireland for the majority of their careers too. The evergreen Roy Carroll – formerly of Man United and a double cup winner in Greece with Olympiacos (starting both finals in 2012 and 2013) – is now playing for Linfield and his level of experience can be passed on to players as he approaches the twilight of his career.
With the rise of the Chinese Super League meaning foreign imports may become increasingly out of the financial reach for English and Scottish Clubs, combined with the potential for Brexit to make it easier for laws to be passed limiting the amount of non-British players, the mutually beneficial exchange may only grow.
Overall, provided the return of older pros does not have the effect of displacing younger player’s starting opportunities, the chance to take inspiration from experienced pros whilst using the Irish League as a good platform to learn the game (which may only increase as exposure to the league grows) represents a positive development for Northern Irish football.
For Cliftonville, they’ll just be hoping Joe can pick up where he left off.