Since the end of last season the Irish media continue to regurgitate the fact that there is unlikely to be an Irish-born player under the age of 25 starting in the upcoming Premier League season. Irish fans will be hoping that this concerning situation changes with a move for Robbie Brady back to the top flight, but it is worth noting that two of Ireland’s most promising under-21 internationals are part of the newly-promoted Watford squad. Tommie Hoban and Sean Murray are both English-born, but have been committed to Ireland since they joined the Boys in Green as under-17’s.
Although only 21 years old Tommie Hoban has already made 57 appearances for Watford and was an integral part of the Hornet’s team last season as they won automatic promotion to the Premier League. After spending seven years in the Arsenal underage system Hoban joined Watford in 2009 and made his first team debut for the club at the age of just 17 in the final game of the 2010/11 season.
Hoban progressed steadily at Vicarage Road and the young defender was in outstanding form for Watford during the 2012/13 season, which resulted in him being voted the club’s Young Player of the Year. This was an impressive achievement given that he picked up a serious ankle injury in February of that season that would keep him out of football for a year. It is a testament to Hoban’s character that he returned after a long period on the sidelines to play 30 games for Watford last season. Hoban’s consistency also demonstrates a degree of resilience, given that Watford had four separate managers during the course of the season. Moreover, the success of Slaviša Jokanović in the managerial hotseat was based on an all-out attacking philosophy rather than defensive stability. Ironically, the experience of working under different managerial styles may benefit Hoban as he continues to cut his teeth in the professional game. He has certainly displayed some versatility during his time at Watford, as he has played at centre-half, left back and wing back on occasions.
Hoban qualifies to play for Ireland through his Dublin-born mother though his paternal grandparents were also born in Ireland. He has represented the Boys in Green at under-17, under-19 and under-21 levels and is one of the few players from the current under-21 team that looks like he might eventually step up to the senior squad. Hoban is clearly on the radar of Martin O’Neill who went to watch him play against both Charlton and Blackpool earlier in 2015.
In the short-term the challenge for Hoban is to try and nail down a place in the Watford first team, which will be more difficult given their new Premier League status. His task is further complicated as Watford have recently signed the Austrian international centre-half, Sebastian Prödl. There have been suggestions that Watford may be willing to loan Hoban to a Championship club, with both Charlton and Nottingham Forest mentioned as potential suitors. However, even if a loan move comes to fruition it would be a surprise if Hoban does not make a mark in the Premier League at some stage over the coming year.
Sean Murray is just three months older than Tommie Hoban and his career trajectory bears a remarkable similarity to that of his Irish under-21 teammate. Murray has made first team appearances for Watford in each of the last five seasons and racked up a total of 75 appearances for the club.
Murray was born in Watford and joined the club when he was nine years old. The young midfielder was still only 17 when he made his first team debut in a Championship game against QPR at Vicarage Road in April 2011. The following season he made his mark with an impressive performance against Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup. His good form continued, scoring four goals in seven games, which led to him winning the Football League’s Young Player of the Month Award in March 2012. Murray went on to win Watford’s Young Player of the Year award for the 2011/12 season.
Murray was a key member of Sean Dyche’s Watford team and became synonymous with well-timed late runs in to the box to score. In this regard, much of the team’s play was directed through the young midfielder. However, the purchase of the club by the Pozzo family and the signing of a number of continental players reduced Murray’s role at the club. This process was not helped by Murray picking up a series of niggling injuries. In spite of the turbulence Murray played a total of 39 times during the 2013/14 season, but only made nine appearances last season as the club won promotion.
Murray qualifies to play for Ireland through his grandparents. Like Tommie Hoban he has represented Ireland at under-17, under-19 and under-21 levels. This experience included reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA European Under-19 Championships in 2011. He has since gone on to play 11 times for the Irish under-21 team.
In light of Murray’s lack of football last season it is difficult to predict how he will perform if he receives opportunities in the Premier League. There is no doubting his technical ability and it may be a case that the style of play in the top flight will be more to his liking. However, if he fails to make an early impact, the wiser option might involve securing a loan move back to the Championship. In this regard if Murray found a club willing to allow him the freedom he enjoyed in the earlier part of his career it may benefit him more in the longer term. The opportunity to once again work with Sean Dyche (now at Burley) could rejuvenate his career.
Irish fans will be watching closely to see how this Watford duo progress over the coming season, hoping that they can add some much needed youth and energy to Martin O’Neill’s wilting senior squad.
- Author: Alan Hannify