It’s a damning reflection on the current state of Irish football that Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill’s latest squad – a bloated 28-man panel for Thursday’s friendly against Northern Ireland and the Nations League clash in Denmark four days later – just seven can call themselves established Premier League players.
They are: Séamus Coleman, Cyrus Christie, Shane Duffy, Kevin Long, Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and Matt Doherty.
The first six have been regulars throughout O’Neill’s reign but Doherty has had a harder time persuading the former Celtic and Sunderland boss of his international credentials.
The 26-year-old Dubliner has been a regular in the Wolves line-up since 2013 but only recently has he pushed himself to the forefront of O’Neill’s plans.
Having received his first call-up in March 2016, the defender made his senior international debut earlier this year as second-half substitute for captain Coleman, but eyebrows were raised when he was excluded from the squad for September’s double-header against Wales and Poland,
Doherty finally featured in O’Neill’s starting XI for the first time in October but, while his path into the national team has been troublesome, the right-back’s progression at club level has been much more serene.
Doherty, who cost Wolves £60,000 from Dublin side Bohemians in 2010, started all but one of the club’s 46 Championship games last season as they secured promotion back to the top flight.
This season, he has been ever-present, scoring once and assisting a further two. Two days after scoring his first Premier League goal – the winner in a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace – Doherty was named the PFA Fans’ Premier League Player of the Month award for September, edging out Arsenal forward Alexandre Lacazette, Chelsea star Eden Hazard, Leicester City’s James Maddison and Manchester City duo Sergio Agüero and Raheem Sterling in the process.
It was the latest recognition of Doherty’s burgeoning reputation, becoming just the fourth Irishman – after Mickey Evans, Roy Keane and Robbie Keane – to receive the award.
Nuno Espírito Santo’s arrival brought out the best in Doherty. The Portuguese tactician ordered the full-back to shed some weight. In response, Doherty ditched his beloved microwaveable pasta and fizzy drinks, lost a stone and upped the intensity in training, convincing Santo that he was an integral part of his plans.
Relishing a chance to prove his worth in the Premier League, he’s been something of a stats sensation. Only four players in Europe’s top five leagues can better his average of 5.36 aerial duels won per 90 minutes, while he tops the Premier League’s charts for defenders in open-play shots and open-play shots assisted with 17 and 15 respectively.
Doherty’s overall creativity – he’s completed 13 open-play key passes already this year – and willingness to drive forward has been a hallmark of Wolves’ play. His open-play expected goals (xG) of 1.73 is the second-best for defenders while his 2.93 touches in the opponent’s area ranks him sixth among players in his position.
Now established in the Ireland ranks, if Doherty can continue apace and help propel Wolves further up the table, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear of overtures from Premier League rivals regarding his availability. While that may be tempting when the time comes, Doherty will find it difficult waving goodbye to Molineux and Santo, the man who enabled him to reach an entirely new level.