Best Irish footballers of all time or better said best Irish football players in history; who are they really? Have they ever played in top European leagues like Premier League? And if so, have they been one of those spotlighted players?
Well, before we get to these questions, we should say that our list of
best Irish footballers ever
contains footballers both from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland; actually 6 from the Republic of Ireland and 6 from Northern Ireland.
And to answer the questions above, we should say yes; there are players on the list who have played in major European leagues like Robbie Keane who played for the top Premier League club, Tottenham Hotspur and Serie A club, Inter Milan, and he was also one of those spotlighted footballers.
Our list of best Irish Soccer players of all time contains not only big names in Irish football but some of the most famous Irish Football players in history. Stay with us to know who they are.
Number one on the list of best Irish footballers of all time and also the first passed footballer on the list, George Best was actually a footballer fromNorthern Ireland
who played for more than 15 clubs during his career, but mainly for Manchester United. He played for Man Utd for 11 years at the start of his career - actually from 1963 to 1974 - while he served other clubs only for a year or two during his career.
Playing as an attacking midfielder, George Best made 470 appearances for Man Utd and scored 179 goals for them in total; almost 2 goals in every 5 appearances. He also made 37 appearances for the Northern Ireland national team and scored 9 goals for them between 1964 and 1977.
And as you might have guessed Best won all his club trophies with Man Utd including two Football League First Division titles in 1964-65 and 1966-67 seasons and one European Cup in 1968. Considered as one the best dribblers in the history of football, George Best had an extraordinary talent to get past the defenders, but he was more inclined to create chances for his teammates than scoring himself, as confirmed by his contemporary footballer, Tony Dove.
Another footballer on the list of best Irish footballers of all time from Northern Ireland and also the second passed footballer on the list, Danny Blanchflower served the two top English clubs,Aston Villa
and Tottenham Hotspur, for the majority of his career which lasted from 1946 to 1965. Blanchflower played as a defensive midfielder on the right wing and also captained Tottenham for some time during his career.
Blanchflower also won all his club trophies with Tottenham including one Football League First Division title in 1960-61 season and two FA Cups in 1960-61 and 1961-62 seasons. Mostly known for his defending abilities and accurate passing, the passed Northern Irish footballer was named the greatest footballer ever in Tottenham history by the Times magazine in 2003. As understood from one of his most famous quotes, he was not of the type who thought about winning or losing but about exciting the crowd with their art on the pitch.
And here comes the first footballer on the list of
best Irish footballers of all time
from the Republic of Ireland: Liam Brady. He’s by now 65 years old and during his playtime served top Premier League and Serie A clubs such as Inter Milan, Juventus, and Arsenal, though he’s most considered as an Arsenal former player since he served the Premier League club - in fact not Premier League but the then top English club - for 7 years between 1973 and 1980, while he played for the Italian clubs he served for only two seasons.
Not a very decorated footballer among the best Irish football players in history, Brady only won three club trophies during his career: Two Serie A titles with Juventus and one FA Cup withArsenal
, however, he has some individual honors to his name among them are Arsenal Player of the Year in three consecutive years, namely 1977, 1978 and 1979, and being inducted into English Football Hall of Fame in 2008.
Just one year after joining Arsenal in 1973, Brady became an Arsenal regular and reached his top form in the same years he was named as Arsenal Player of the Year - starting from 1977. And with Juventus, he wore No.10 jersey despite not being a forward - he was actually an attacking midfielder. He actually scored the only goal againstCatanzaro
and from penalty spot that won Juventus Serie A title in 1981-82 season.
Yet another passed footballer on the list of best Irish footballers of all time from Northern Ireland, Joe Bambrick only served four clubs during his short 13-year career: Glentoran, Linfield, Chelsea, and Walsall in chronological order - the first two are from Northern Ireland and the second two from England.
The interesting fact about Bambrick is that he neither won a club trophy with the clubs he served nor he won an individual trophy, however, he was a real prolific goalscorer and among those footballers whose number of goals exceed their number of appearances. The passed Northern Irish footballer scored 364 goals in the 299 appearances he made for the above-mentioned clubs; actually 1.2 goals in every appearance.
Bambrick was also a prolific goalscorer with the Irish national team, though he didn’t make more than 11 appearances for them. He actually scored 12 goals in his 11 appearances for his country’s national team which again gets him a goal-to-appearance ratio higher than 1. Bambrick’s shining days was actually with Chelsea where he managed to score four hat-tricks for them in two of these occasions he alone scored 4 goals for the top English club.
Just like Joe Bambrick, Roy Keane also served four clubs during his career, but it was actually Manchester United that got the highest share of Keane’s years of service among the clubs he served, namely Cobh Ramblers of Northern Ireland, Nottingham Forest, andCeltic
. Keane served Man Utd for 12 years while he only played for the other clubs mentioned above between one to three years.
Considered as one of the best midfielders of his own time, Roy Keane won almost all his club trophies with Manchester United including seven Premier League titles. He also served the Irish national team between 1991 and 2005 and during this time made 67 appearances and scored 9 goals for them.
As once described by his teammate, Gary Neville, Keane’s performance on the pitch actually had his other teammates to bring on whatever they had inside! It should also be mentioned here that Keane served the Irish national team as the assistant manager for 5 years between 2013 and 2018, and most importantly that he’s also the most successful Irish footballer ever with the 19 club trophies he won during his career.
One of the
most famous Irish Football players in history
, Robbie Keane is a 40-year-old recently-retired footballer - he actually retired in 2018 - who served 11 clubs during his career including top Premier League clubs, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. He also served the Irish national team for 18 years between 1998 and 2016 during which he made 146 appearances and scored 68 goals for them - almost one goal in every two appearances (exactly 0.92).
In fact, Robbie Keane is the most capped Irish footballer and also Ireland’s top goalscorer ever. Maybe that’s why he’s one of the most famous Irish Football players in history. In any case, Robbie Keane’s records for the Irish national team are not yet broken. Also Keane’s move fromWolverhampton Wanderers
to Coventry City in 1999-2000 season for a transfer fee of £6 million was a then record for a footballer who was only 19 years old.
And if you thought that Robbie Keane and Roy Keane has the same family roots because of the same family names, we should say you’re quite wrong; they are not related in this way, however, they have one thing in common: Both of them have served the Irish national team as an assistant manager; Roy Keane from 2013 to 2018 and Robbie Keane from 2018 to 2020.
Another midfielder on the list of
best Irish footballers of all time
, Johnny Giles is a 80-year-old retired footballer who served the top English club, Leeds United, more than any other club during his career; actually for 12 years between 1963 and 1975, though he also served Manchester United and the Irish club, Shamrock Rovers, each for six years, too. Generally speaking, Giles’ career was long - 26 years actually. He started playing as a senior player when he was only 17 and continued until he was 43; what is less or not common with today’s footballers.
Despite his long club career, Johnny Giles never was capped enough to get even close to the likes of Robbie Keane. He was capped only 59 times which is even less than half of Robbie Keane’s caps. Giles is often known as a former Leeds United player whose partnership with the former Scottish footballer, Billy Bremner, in 1960s and 70s brought major trophies and an era of success forLeeds United
Here comes again another passed footballer from Northern Ireland on the list of list of best Irish footballers ever: Jimmy Mcilory. He actually played as a forward and attacking midfielder during his career and a major part of it for Burnley; actually for 13 years between 1950 and 1963, though he also served Stoke City, Oldham athletic, and the Irish club,Glentoran
, for a year or two.
Considered as one of the greatest players Burnley has ever had, Mcilroy made 497 appearances and scored 131 goals for Burnley during the time he served them. He had turned to a Burnley fans’ favorite and actually helped the team win the First Division - the top tier of English football league system at the time - in 1959-60 season and finish as runners-up in 1962 FA Cup. Mcilroy also served the Northern Ireland national team between 1951 and 1965 making 55 appearances and scoring 10 goals for them in the process.
Aged 61, Paul McGrath is a former Irish footballer who, during the Irish national team prime in 1980s and 1990s, was regarded as one of the most influential and even in some’s belief the only influential player Ireland had at that time. He was an integral part of the Irish national team who reached the 1990 World Cup quarter-finals and the same team in 1994 World Cup who beat Italy in the group stage. In the same match against Italy, McGrath put up an incredible defensive performance despite his knee injury.
McGrath made a total of 83 appearances for the Irish national team between 1985 and 1997 and even scored 8 goals for them during this time. For the major part of his club career, McGrath served the top English clubs,Manchester United
and Aston Villa - each for seven years - between 1982 and 1996, but made around 100 more appearances for the latter.
Not only a defender, McGrath could also play as a defensive midfielder during his playtime and with his great performances, he’s considered today as one of the best Irish footballers of all time. It should also be mentioned here that McGrath is one of the six defenders in the history of football to have won PFA Players' Player of the Year award - in fact, to this date.
Not only on the list of
best Irish footballers of all time
but also the most successful Irish footballer jointly with Roy Keane with the 19 trophies he won during his career, Denis Irwin is a 55-year-old retired footballer who played as a defender for four top English clubs, namely Leeds United, Oldham Athletic, Manchester United, and Wolverhampton Wanderers, during his career with Manchester United getting the highest share of Irwin’s years of service; actually 12 years between 1990 and 2002.
And, as you might have guessed, it was with Manchester United that Irwin won almost all his club trophies; actually 18 including seven Premier League titles. Irwin was indeed a Man Utd regular during his service to the club and even more; he was an integral part of Man Utd team during 1990s whom the then Man Utd manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, described as his best signing ever.
Irwin also served the Irish national team between 1990 and 1999 making 56 appearances and scoring 4 goals for them in the process. He also made one appearances for Ireland B team, one appearance for Ireland U23 team, and three appearances forIreland U21 team
between 1986 and 1990.
Yet another passed footballer on the list of best Irish footballers of all time, John Joseph Carey, better known as Johnny Carey, played as a defender - actually right back - during his playtime that lasted for 17 years from 1936 to 1953 and mainly for the top English club, Manchester United, though he also served other clubs such as Manchester City,Cardiff City
, Liverpool, and Everton each for a short period of time and as a guest.
Johnny Carey also served the Irish national team and made 38 appearances for them in total. He captained the Ireland team who beat England in 1949 and also the Manchester United team who won the FA Cup in 1949 and the First Division title in 1951-52 season. The interesting fact about Carey is that although he was actually a defender he could play in any position on the pitch even as a goalee. Maybe that’s because football was not that professional in those days? Maybe. It should also be mentioned here that Carey was named Footballer of the Year in 1949 by Football Writers Association (FWA).
And here comes another and actually the last footballer from Northern Ireland on the list of best Irish football players in history: Pat Jennings. He is 76 years old by now but fortunately alive - we’ve had enough passed footballers on our list of best Irish footballers ever! Jennings served top English clubs such as Arsenal,Everton
, and Tottenham Hotspur during his career, but he’s best known as a Tottenham player since he served the English club more than any other club during his career; actually for 14 years and in two time periods, once from 1964 to 1977 and another time in 1985-86 season.
As you might have guessed Jennings also won most of his club trophies with Tottenham; if we just exclude the FA Cup he won with Arsenal in 1978-79 season, we can say Jennings won the rest of his club trophies - actually five including one FA Cup and one UEFA Cup - with Tottenham.
The only goalkeeper on our list of
best Irish Soccer players of all time
, Jennings is also the second most capped footballer from Northern Ireland with the 119 appearances that he made for his country’s national team between 1964 and 1986 - after Steven Davis with 126 appearances.