Only 8 players have represented the Republic of Ireland national team and played in Spain. Here we will look through the successes (and failures, man was there a lot of failure) of those players.
- John Aldridge (Real Sociedad 1989-1991)
You cannot make a list of “Irish” players without including those who were born in England, so of course we will start with Liverpool born John Aldridge. Aldridge represented the Boys in Green 69 times scoring 19 goals.
Aldridge moved to Real Sociedad in 1989 from Liverpool. He was signed for £1 million a then record fee for the club. The move had the ingredients to be a disaster, Aldridge did not want to leave his boyhood club and La Real had been operating a strict policy of only using Basque players and many fans were opposed to his signing. When Aldridge first arrived at training he was greeted by graffiti saying foreigners were not welcome at the club. However, his charisma and goal scoring prowess helped him win over the critics and he adopted to his surroundings well, sharing a love of food, drink and football with the Basque people. On the pitch he finished the season with 16 league goals and helped the team to 5th in the league. The next season he hit 17 league goals. Yet his stay was cut short. Aldridge’s family didn’t settle and were desperate to return to England. Aldridge did what he thought was best for his family and moved to Tranmere Rovers. He would return however in 2015 when he was given a standing ovation at half time by 30,000 fans at the Anoeta, which brought “Aldo” to tears. He is considered one of the club’s greatest ever foreign players.
- Michael Robinson (Osasuna 1987-1989)
Another English born, Ireland international who moved to the Basque country after a spell with Liverpool, Michael Robinson joined Osasuna in 1987, playing the final seasons of his career there. “Robín” took to his new life outside of England, quickly learning the language and after retiring began a media career in Spain, commentating on the 1990 World Cup matches for RTE (that’s Radio Televisión Española). He then hosted a football highlights show, El Día Después (The Day After), which was a hit due to its humorous and frenetic style. After 14 years there, he left and began hosting a new monthly magazine show “Informe Robinson”, focusing on the more serious aspects of sport, cementing his status as the most popular football presenter in Spain. Outside of sport Robinson was the voice of “Doris”, one of the Ugly Sisters in the Spanish language dub of the movie Shrek 2 & 3. I mean, what more can you really say about the man after that!?
- Ian Harte & Steve Finnan (Levante 2004-2007 & Espanyol 2008-2009)
Both of these players took penalties in the 2002 World Cup clash between Spain and Ireland, Harte during normal time, which he missed, and Finnan during the shootout, which he scored. Finnan went on to win the Champions League with Liverpool. Ian Harte won an LDV Vans Trophy Runners up medal with Carlisle United.
Setting aside my bitterness, Ian Harte was a good left back. He played in a Champions League Semi Final against Rafa Benítez’s Valencia for Leeds United after all. Yet Leeds went into financial turmoil and Ian Harte moved to Levante. Harte scored on his league debut, Levante’s first top-flight goal in 39 years but got injured midway through the season with the team sitting in midtable. He returned in a 4-0 win over Osasuna, however an awful run of form which saw the club not win any of their remaining 9 fixtures meant Levante were relegated. Harte stayed with the club in the 2nd tier, scoring 9 goals to help secure a quick return to La Liga. However, his third season would be his last, as he lost his place in the team.
Though a consistent Premier League performer Finnan’s time with Espanyol was remarkably bad. He got injured on his 1st start, played a total of 5 times and never won a game. He played in one interesting game, a Copa del Rey Quarter Final 2nd leg at the Nou Camp which saw Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino go head to head as managers. Barca won 3-2, surviving a late Espanyol rally after being 3-0 up. Finnan was replaced on 51 minutes by the late Daniel Jarque, who was red carded. Finnan had his contract terminated by mutual consent at the end of the season.
- Alan Campbell & Liam Buckley (Racing Santander 1984-1986, Logroñés 1986-1987 & Racing Santander 1986-1987)
If you are an Irish person looking for a Spanish team to follow outside of the traditional names may I suggest Racing de Santander. Based in “Green Spain”, “Los Verdiblancos” were managed by Ireland and Barcelona legend Patrick O’Connell in two separate spells during the 1920s and 1940s. The club also had two Irish players during the 1980s. Alan Campbell signed for Racing from Shamrock Rovers. He hit 15 goals in the top flight over 2 seasons. He was sold to the 2nd tier Spanish team Logrones. He scored 9 goals and saw the team promoted, but moved to Belgian football the next season.
Racing replaced Campbell with his former Shamrock Rovers strike partner Liam Buckley. Buckley made his debut in the Nou Camp, playing against Mark Hughes and Gary Linekar. Buckley was not as successful as Campbell only scoring 5 times, in a team that was relegated. The next season saw him move to the 4th level of Swiss football. He now manages St. Patrick’s Athletic.
- Ashley Grimes (Osasuna 1989-1991) & Kevin Moran (Sporting Gijon 1988-1990)
Ashley Grimes joined Osasuna from Luton Town at the age of 32. With his best days behind him he only played 15 times mostly as a substitute and moved to Stoke in 1991. Grimes scored one goal for the Republic of Ireland in his 18 caps, in 1982 during a qualifier for the ’84 European Championship against Spain. The game was a thriller finishing 3-3 in Dublin. It is worth searching for Grimes’ goal on YouTube, it was an unstoppable left footed drive outside the box.
It’s a shame to relegate Kevin Moran, one of the greats of Irish sports, to a footnote, but his time in Spain was a struggle. Moran won two All-Ireland Gaelic Football Medals with Dublin before turning 22 and won two FA Cups with Manchester United, one with Ashley Grimes as his teammate. Kevin did not adapt to life in Spain after joining Sporting Gijon, in fact it would appear he had little interest in connecting with any of his teammates, never learning the language and he returned to English football after two seasons. Perhaps his experience should be viewed as a cautionary tale and highlights the importance of being open to new cultures. Then again maybe all his teammates were horrible people (Haha 😊).
By Ciarán Cullen