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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Top 25 Best Irish Soccer Players of All Time

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There have been many talented Irish soccer players over the years. Some have done their country proud at major competitions, and others have won league titles all over the world. This got us thinking, who are the best Irish soccer players of all time?

Our selection criteria involved looking across the ages to find players who excelled at international and club-level soccer. We also looked for players who set records, won silverware, and inspired the next generation of youngsters. Below we have a list of unbelievable shot-stoppers, scintillating strikers, and even a Ballon d’Or winner.

If you are following soccer this season, make sure you check back here for the latest soccer news. We have our finger on the pulse for all things soccer, including the latest news, predictions, and betting tips. However, we are here to focus on the best Irish soccer players ever. Without further delay, who are the greatest soccer stars of Ireland?

25. Shane Duffy

Starting our list of the best Irish soccer players of all time is Shane Duffy. Currently playing for Norwich City, Duffy is a two-time Irish player of the year. The defender first won the award in 2017 and won it again in 2018. After leaving Foyle Harps’ academy for Everton’s U18s in 2008, the Irishman featured just ten times for the Toffees, spending most of his time in Merseyside with the reserves.

However, a loan spell at Championship side Blackburn Rovers revived the defender’s career. Duffy played 69 times for the Riversiders after joining on a permanent deal in 2014. It was these performances that earned him the move to join rising stars in Brighton for €5.25m. The 32-year-old played a staggering 150 times for Brighton but moved on to Fulham and struggled to find his feet at the West London club. After only seven appearances, Fulham released Duffy to Norwich on a free transfer.

But Shane Duffy’s international legacy is the biggest achievement in the defender’s career. Playing 59 senior international matches for the Republic of Ireland and wearing the captain’s armband will quickly make you forget about his struggles at Everton and Fulham.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 59
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 7
  • Club Appearances: 414
  • Club Goals: 30
  • Active Years: 2008-Current

24. Kevin Kilbane

While Kevin Kilbane does not have a reputation as a goalscorer or a master at creating chances, the former Ireland international is deserving of a place on our list of best Irish soccer players. Kilbane has the third most appearances for the Republic of Ireland, behind John O’Shea and Robbie Keane. The former Sunderland man played 110 times for his national team.

As we said, Kilbane only scored eight goals when playing for Ireland. But he was a loyal servant to club and country. The Irish international played over a hundred times for three different professional football clubs. Kilbane featured 109 times for West Brom and 121 times for both Sunderland and Everton. This resulted in the Irishman playing 431 matches in the Premier League and English First Division during his career.

Kevin Kilbane played for eight professional football clubs, with 543 total appearances to show for his hard work. The fiercely loyal player scored 38 goals and got 16 assists during these outings, with just a single straight red card.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 110
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 8
  • Club Appearances: 543
  • Club Goals: 38
  • Active Years: 1995-2012

23. Gerry Daly

The interesting career of Gerry Daly couldn’t have gone unrecognised in our list. The dangerous midfielder played for clubs such as Telford United, New England Tea Men, and a little club called Manchester United during his professional career.

Daly started his footballing life at Bohemians before making the jump to the Red Devils in 1973. The talented Irishman played 72 times for Manchester United and returned an impressive 13 goals from midfield. However, four years later, Daly transferred to Derby County, which is the club where he played the most matches during his career. Scoring 31 goals in 113 games for the Rams cemented his legacy as an iconic player for Derby.

But Gerry Daly didn’t just save his talents for domestic football, with the midfielder also having an impressive record for the Republic of Ireland. In 47 international appearances for Ireland, the former Manchester United player scored 13 goals for his country. Daly was averaging a goal every 260 minutes for Ireland, which is better than the likes of Niall Quinn! With this in mind, it’s clear to see why he should be among the best Irish soccer players.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 47
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 13
  • Club Appearances: 277
  • Club Goals: 64
  • Active Years: 1973-1991

22. David Healy

Currently managing Linfield, but was once a prolific goalscorer for club and country, David Healy had to be included on our list. The 44-year-old started his career at Lisburn FC but spent most of his youth learning his craft in Manchester United’s academy system. Healy would only feature for United three times, as is usually the case for young players at major football clubs.

But David Healy kick-started his career when leaving Manchester United in 2000 on loan to Preston North End. This loan deal eventually became permanent, mainly because of the success the striker was having at the club. After paying the €2.00m fee required by Man United, Preston would play for Healy 152 times during both the loan spell and his permanent contract. He took full advantage of this game time and scored 44 goals for Preston North End, not bad for just a couple million euros!

But David Healy is probably more well-known for his goal-scoring record when representing his country. While playing for Northern Ireland, the centre-forward scored 36 goals in 85 appearances, the best goal-scoring record in Northern Irish history. Healy never represented the Republic of Ireland, starting his international career in Northern Ireland’s U16s.

Today, Healy is managing Linfield in the Northern Irish Premiership. The former striker has won the domestic league five times with the club and lifted the Northern Irish Cup twice.

  • Northern Ireland Caps: 95
  • Northern Ireland Goals: 36
  • Club Appearances: 428
  • Club Goals: 99
  • Active Years: 1997-2013

21. James ‘Jimmy’ Dunne

Jimmy Dunne is arguably one of the most underappreciated goalscorers in England and Irish soccer but should be spoken about as one of the best Irish soccer players in history. The striker sadly died at just 44 years old but had an amazing career in the English First Division and for Shamrock Rovers. During 1926 and 1934, Dunne played 173 matches for Sheffield United. The Irishman joined the Blades for €1,000, and they sure got their money’s worth. ‘Jimmy’ scored 143 goals during his 173 outings for Sheffield United, which is a record-setting amount of goals unbeaten to this day by an Irishman in the English Leagues.

As mentioned, Jimmy Dunne also had a distinguished career when representing and playing in Ireland. Despite only featuring fifteen times in the Republic of Ireland, the striker scored 13 goals. Dunne started his career playing for Shamrock Rovers’ academy and ended his career in their senior team. The Ireland international scored a staggering 52 goals in 87 appearances for the Rovers and is one of Ireland’s best soccer players.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 15
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 13
  • Club Appearances: 332
  • Club Goals: 225
  • Active Years: 1923-1942

20. Ray Houghton

Liverpool legend Ray Houghton

Continuing our list of the best Irish soccer players of all time is Ray Houghton. Houghton was a midfielder who played for several teams from 1982 to 2000. He started his career at West Ham but only appeared once before breaking through at Fulham. Houghton then played for Oxford United, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, and Reading. He had one last season with Stevenage before retiring from professional football in 2000.

Houghton did well for Fulham and Oldham but was famous for his offensive partnership with John Aldridge, Peter Beardsley, and John Barnes at Liverpool. When wearing the green shirt of Ireland, he had a tremendous impact. At the 1988 Euros, Houghton faced off against the likes of Barnes, Beardsley, and Gary Lineker in a 1-0 match where Houghton scored the winner. He also scored the winning goal against Italy in the 1994 World Cup, revenge for Italy knocking Ireland out of the 1990 World Cup.

Players like Houghton did not set the game alight, nor did he change the way how people played soccer, but he was a remarkable talent. What he did for the Republic of Ireland and Liverpool exhibits the ability he had. We will always remember him as one of the best Irish soccer players ever.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 73
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 6
  • Club Appearances: 580
  • Club Goals: 68
  • Active Years: 1979-2000

19. Mark Lawrenson

Mark Lawrenson during a testimonial match having a drink

If you have watched Football Focus or Match of the Day, you would have seen Mark Lawrenson dissect and give a thorough analysis of soccer games every week. However, before he became an iconic pundit, he was a fantastic soccer player. Lawrenson is another player born outside of Ireland but put on the famous green shirt through the Granny rule.

His professional career began in 1974 with Preston North End. After three years, Lawrenson caught the attention of Brighton & Hove Albion, where he made over 150 appearances. In 1981, he made the move to Liverpool where he thrived in a red shirt. He spent the final year of his career at Barnet and the Tampa Bay Rowdies, a defunct American soccer team.

They used Lawrenson across the back line when representing the Republic of Ireland. He scored two goals in Ireland’s largest-ever international victory, an 8-0 demolition of Malta. His most memorable international moment came in the 1988 Euro qualifier at Hampden Park. Ireland travelled to Scotland and Lawrenson scored the decisive goal in a match that proved to be vital in securing qualification. Many credit his goal as the driving force behind Ireland’s first qualification for a major soccer championship.

Lawrenson only played 39 times for the Republic of Ireland, but he certainly left his mark on the national team. Plus, when considering he won the First Division five times with Liverpool, three League Cups, and one FA Cup, he is amongst the most decorated Irish soccer players ever.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 39
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 5
  • Club Appearances: 488
  • Club Goals: 21
  • Active Years: 1974-1989

18. Ronnie Whelan

Ronnie Whelan celebrating with Liverpool legends

Next up on the list of the best Irish soccer players ever is Ronnie Whelan, another famous Irish Liverpool star.  Wheelan’s career began with Home Farm, an Irish Association soccer club based in Whitehall, Dublin. Home Farm has several noteworthy former players, including Liam Brady, Richard Dunne, and Johnny Giles.

An 18-year-old Whelan signed for Liverpool in 1979, but it took him a season to break into the first team. He made an immediate impact by helping his side preserve the League Cup. Liverpool defeated Tottenham thanks to a late equalizing goal by Whelan in regular time, plus he scored the winner in extra time. He repeated the feat by defeating Man United in the 1983 League Cup final. This helped secure a treble, including the League Cup, the European Cup, and the League Title.

Whelan was not best utilised by Ireland manager Jack Charlton. Ireland’s style of play did not require precise passing in the midfield, which meant Whelan did not feature as much as other Irish soccer icons. He was a part of the side that qualified for the 1988 UEFA European Championship, including scoring a special goal against the USSR. He played 53 times in the Republic of Ireland, and he scored three times.

Whelan’s major contributions to soccer were with Liverpool. He won the First Division six times between 1982 and 1990. That was not the only silverware he achieved with the Reds. Wheelan lifted the FA Cup three times and was a three-time League Cup winner. He won the FA Charity Shield five times and the European Cup in 1983-84. Ronnie Whelan was one of the best Irish soccer players ever.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 53
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 3
  • Club Appearances: 441
  • Club Goals: 54
  • Active Years: 1977-1996

17. Steve Staunton

Steve Staunton in an Aston Villa kit

Steve Staunton was a proper Irish lad. Born in Dundalk, he played soccer and Gaelic football in his early career. He played for Clan na Gael where he picked up a Louth Senior Championship medal. While Staunton won’t go down as one of the best GAA players of all time, he certainly excelled on a soccer pitch. In 1986, Kenny Daglish signed Staunton. He had had several iconic performances for the Reds before moving in 1991. This time, Graeme Souness of Aston Villa signed him.

It was at Villa that Staunton thrived, alongside fellow Irish defensive maestro Paul McGrath. He managed 208 appearances for the Villans, including two League Cups. In 1998, Staunton made a return to Liverpool for two seasons before also making a comeback for Aston Villa. He had a couple of seasons with Coventry City retiring at Walsall. Once his playing days were over, Staunton stepped up as the Republic of Ireland manager for a year.

When playing for the Republic of Ireland, Staunton made 102 appearances and scored eight goals. He was the youngest player in the first Irish World Cup finals squad. He would step up in the 2002 World Cup after Roy Keane departed the squad, captaining the side. Staunton will go down in Irish folklore as the only player to have appeared at every single Irish World Cup final game. He also scored directly from a corner twice while on international duty.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 102
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 8
  • Club Appearances: 481
  • Club Goals: 21
  • Active Years: 1985-2005

16. James McClean

James McClean in the green of Ireland

The 16th-best Irish soccer player of all time is James McClean. If you follow the Republic of Ireland international team, you would have seen a very touching tribute to McClean on his last appearance a 1-1 draw against New Zealand. He made 103 appearances in a green shirt, finding the back of the net 11 times. McClean hung up his boots for his country, but he still plays for Wrexham.

He started his professional career with the Institute, making only one appearance before joining Derry City in 2008. His performances in Derry got him a move to Sunderland in 2011, where he stayed until 2013. He moved to Wigan Athletic for a couple seasons before joining West Bromwich Albion. After 99 appearances for the Baggies, he appeared over 100 times for Stoke City. After Stoke came a surprise return to Wigan until 2023, when he made a high-profile move to Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney’s team, Wrexham.

McClean was the seventh player in Irish soccer history to make 100 international appearances. He joins the likes of Robbie Keane, Shay Given, and John O’Shea as one of the most capped players for Ireland ever. He has an EDF League One medal for Wigan in 2022 and a League of Ireland First Division Medal for Derry. While he missed out on top-flight soccer glory, he achieved something many of us can respect. McClean stood up for Irish values and opinions throughout his career, including the controversy around Armistice Day and the Remembrance Poppy.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 103
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 11
  • Club Appearances: 507
  • Club Goals: 61
  • Active Years: 2007-2024

15. John Aldridge

A photo of John Aldridge on the ground during a testimonial

Our list of the best Irish soccer players continues with John Aldridge. Aldridge was born in Liverpool but qualified to play for the Republic of Ireland, thanks to the Granny Rule. His professional career began with Newport County in 1979. During his time with Newport, he scored 70 goals in 170 appearances. Aldridge moved to Oxford United where he played in 114 games, finding the back of the net 72 times. Liverpool signed the striker in 1987 and he scored 50 times for his boyhood club.

After two seasons with Liverpool, he moved to Spain and became the first non-Basque player for Real Sociedad. In 1991, Aldridge signed with Tranmere Rovers, where he retired professionally in 1998. He was a player-manager for two years before focusing on the role full-time. He stayed with Tranmere until 2001 and has yet to return to soccer management.

During his lengthy career, Aldridge made 69 appearances for the national side, scoring 19 goals. That puts him fourth on the all-time Republic of Ireland goal-scoring list, behind Frank Stapleton, Niall Quinn, and Robbie Keane. Aldridge is one of the few players to win the top three English divisions in his soccer career. He also won the League Cup in 1985-85 and one FA Cup in 1988-89.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 69
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 19
  • Club Appearances: 792
  • Club Goals: 422
  • Active Years: 1979-1998

14. Niall Quinn

Niall Quinn during a Republic of Ireland match

Next on our list is another famous Irish striker, Niall Quinn. His professional career began in the early 80s with Arsenal. He only made 93 appearances for the Gunners in seven years before moving to Manchester City. Quinn made 240 appearances for City, netting an impressive 76 times. Finally, he moved to Sunderland in 1996, where he stayed until 2002. Quinn played in 218 games in his six-year stay with the club, scoring 67 goals.

In 2006, Quinn took the plunge and briefly became the Sunderland manager only to step aside for Roy Keane to lead the team to the premier league. He was the club’s chairman until 2011 and left the club altogether in 2012. In his autobiography, Quinn explains why he got involved with the Black Cats. He said:

“I learned my trade at Arsenal, and became a footballer at Manchester City, but Sunderland got under my skin. I love Sunderland.” – Niall Quinn

Quinn had a successful career for the Republic of Ireland national team. He made 92 appearances internationally and scored 21 goals. That leaves him second on the list of Ireland’s top goal-scorers. Quinn was an impressive player in his heyday and has cemented himself in Irish soccer history. You would be daft not to consider Niall Quinn as one of the best Irish soccer players ever.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 92
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 21
  • Club Appearances: 551
  • Club Goals: 163
  • Active Years: 1983-2002

13. John O’Shea

John O’Shea celebrating with his Manchester United teammates

The 13th best soccer player for the Irish national team in John O’Shea. The Manchester United legend won 14 trophies during his 12-year stay, including five Premier League titles and one UEFA Champions League. His professional career began in 1999 with Man United. He had two loans during his stay, one with Bournemouth, and a stint in Belgium with Royal Antwerp. He made 393 appearances for Manchester United, scoring 15 goals. The centre back then had seven years with Sunderland from 2011 to 2018. He played in 256 games for the club before one last season with Reading.

O’Shea retired from professional football in 2019 but stayed with Reading as a coach. He was an assistant to the Republic of Ireland U21 team for three years before joining Stoke City as a coach. Now he is a member of the coaching staff for the Republic of Ireland senior team. His early years in Manchester were full of criticism and few opportunities. However, when they eventually gave him the chance, O’Shea had several famous moments wearing the iconic red shirt. He scored goals in important games and even subbed in for Edwin van der Sar in one game against Tottenham in 2007. John O’Shea has the bragging rights for playing in every single position for Manchester United.

Whatever you think about O’Shea, you cannot doubt his ability. Few players in world football have played in every position on the pitch, let alone for a club like United. There is no doubt in our mind that he deserved a spot on our list of the best Irish soccer players of all time.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 118
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 3
  • Club Appearances: 684
  • Club Goals: 20
  • Active Years: 1999-2019

12. Packie Bonner

Goalkeeper Packie Bonner pointing at his defense during a game

It’s rare in soccer for a player to spend their entire professional career with one club, but the next man on our list did just that. Packie Bonner was a goalkeeper who played for Celtic between 1981 and 1996. He made 641 appearances for Celtic across all competitions, including 483 in the league. Bonner has the most appearances of any Celtic goalkeeper in the club’s history. He won the Scottish Premier Division and the Scottish Cup five times in his fantastic career.

Bonner made a name for himself on the international stage, helping the Republic of Ireland qualify for their first World Cup. Bonner’s face was all over the papers after hoofing the ball into England’s penalty area, setting up the equalising goal. He repeated the feat against the Dutch, with Niall Quinn scoring an equaliser and sending the Irish through to the knockout stage. In the next round against Romania, Bonner saved the crucial kick in a tense penalty shootout. Unfortunately, Ireland was knocked out by Italy in the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup.

Throughout his lengthy Republic of Ireland career, Bonner had plenty of iconic moments. He did Ireland proud at the Euros, World Cup, and at every stage of the qualifiers. Players like Bonner are special, and he will go down as one of the best Irish soccer players ever.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 80
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 0
  • Club Appearances: 641
  • Clean Sheets: 253
  • Active Years: 1978-1997

11. Frank Stapleton

Photo of Frank Stapleton in an Ajax kit

Frank Stapleton is next on our list. The Arsenal and Manchester United legend started playing professionally for Arsenal in 1974. In a seven-year stay with the Gunners, he made 225 league appearances and scored 75 goals. In 1981 he joined Manchester United and played in 223 league games, scoring 60 times. He left the Red Devils in 1987 and over the next eight seasons played for nine different clubs. Stapleton featured at Ajax, Derby County, Le Havre, Blackburn Rovers, and several other teams in the UK.

Stapleton was an Irish boy through and through, insisting on an international release clause in all his contracts. He made 71 appearances for Ireland, scoring 20 times. He is the third top goal scorer for the Irish national soccer team. Stapleton played an important role in the Irish side during some troublesome years for the squad. He was captain of the side during their famous win over England in the 1988 Euro Finals.

Forwards like Stapleton did more than just score goals for Ireland. They inspired the next generation of soccer players to represent the country internationally. Ask yourself, where would we be without players like Frank Stapleton?

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 71
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 20
  • Club Appearances: 698
  • Club Goals: 214
  • Active Years: 1974-1981

10. Damien Duff

Damien Duff during a Republic of Ireland game

Now we are in the top ten best Irish soccer players ever. We can talk about some inspirational individuals. Damien Duff was a winger whose professional soccer career began with Blackburn Rovers in 1996. Following a bright start to his career in England, Duff secured a £17 million move to Chelsea. He was successful in a Chelsea shirt, winning the Premier League in consecutive seasons. Duff moved to Newcastle in 2006 and joined Fulham when the Magpies were relegated in 2009. In 2014, he left Craven Cottage for Melbourne City before one last season with Shamrock Rovers.

During his 19-year career, Duff made 632 appearances. In that time, he scored 83 goals, including his Champions League and FA Cup contributions. Between 1998 and 2012, Duff made 100 appearances for the Republic of Ireland. He is the seventh most-capped Irish player in the country’s history, and he found the back of the net eight times. Since 2021, Duff has been the coach of the Irish association soccer club Shelbourne. Shelbourne F.C. play in the Premier Division and they finished fourth in the table this season.

Duff deserves to be on this list thanks to what he achieved in the English Premiership. He won two League Cups, two Premier League titles, and one Community Shield. Only a handful of Irish players have been more successful than Duff.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 100
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 8
  • Club Appearances: 632
  • Club Goals: 83
  • Active Years: 1996-2015

9. Shay Given

Shay Given in goal for Stoke City

Shay Given was another fantastic goalkeeper for the Republic of Ireland. His professional career began in 1994, but it wasn’t until 1997 that he found a regular starting place. He began at Blackburn before moving to Newcastle and making 354 league appearances for the Geordies. In 2009, he moved to Manchester City in a support role before another move in 2011 to Aston Villa. Given had a season-long loan in Middlesbrough before a 2015 move to Stoke City. He retired from professional soccer in 2017.

Given is the second most capped Irish soccer player of all time, behind Robbie Keane. He made 134 appearances for his country across 20 years. He now holds the record as the longest-serving Irishman to play for his country after he surpassed Johnny Giles. Given retired from international duty in 2012, but made a return after a lack of game time for his new side Villa. He played in several important games for Ireland before retiring again in 2016.

Soccer players like Shay Given were loyal servants to the Irish national team. Not only did he come out of retirement when his country needed him, but he donated all his playing fees for Ireland to charity. There is a case to be made if he was the greatest Irish goalkeeper of all time. However, there is no doubt he is one of the best Irish soccer players.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 134
  • Republic of Ireland Clean Sheets: 52
  • Club Appearances: 636
  • Premier League Clean Sheets: 113
  • Active Years: 1994-2017

8. Denis Irwin

Denis Irwin during a Manchester United soccer game

The eighth-best Irish soccer player of all time is Denis Irwin. The Manchester United legend played a crucial part in the team’s dominance during the 90s and early 2000s. His professional career began with Leeds United in 1983 and the full-back made 72 league appearances for the side. He moved to Oldham in 1986, making 167 appearances before transferring to Man U in 1990. For the Red Devils, he played in 529 games, scoring over 30 times. Before retiring in 2004, Irwin had a two-year stint with Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Irwin moved his way up in the English football league and he did the same for the Republic of Ireland national team. He played for the Under 21s, U23, and Ireland B teams before finally getting his chance in 1990 to play for the senior team. He managed 56 appearances for his country, scoring four goals across his nine-year international career.

The full-back is another contender for the most decorated Irish footballer of all time. He won the Premier League seven times with Manchester United, including two FA Cups, and one UEFA Champions League. He was also a part of the team that won the European Super Cup, the Intercontinental Cup, and the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Irwin did not play his best football for his country, but there is no doubt he is one of the most successful soccer players to come from Ireland. Sir Alex Ferguson exalted the man, calling him “pound for pound, his greatest ever signing”.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 56
  • The Republic of Ireland Goals: 4
  • Club Appearances: 900
  • Club Goals: 43
  • Active Years: 1983-2004

7. Johnny Giles

Johnny Giles posing for the camera during Ireland soccer training

Next on our list of the best Irish soccer players of all time is Johnny Giles. He joined Manchester United in 1956 with a £10 signing fee and got his first-team debut in 1959 after the Munich air disaster. Giles became a regular first-team player until he was frozen out and left for Leeds United in 1963. It was at Leeds, that he established himself as one of the best midfielders in England. He, alongside Billy Bremner, was a force to be reckoned with in the league. Most fans agree that Giles is one of the best soccer players for the Republic of Ireland.

While in his final two seasons with Leeds, Giles became the player-manager for the Republic of Ireland. His first appearance for Ireland was in 1959 and his last cap was in 1979. During his seven-year stint as a player-manager for the national side, he was also player-manager for West Brom and Shamrock Rovers until 1983. At 43, he retired from playing soccer but continued to manage until 1985.

Giles was a fantastic player during his prime, earning a lot of respect from players and pundits alike. He continued to be involved in soccer even after retiring from coaching, becoming a pundit from 1986 to 2016. Few Irish soccer players have dedicated their lives to the sport as much as Giles did, securing his spot as one of the best Republic of Ireland players ever.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 59
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 5
  • Club Appearances: 730
  • Club Goals: 133
  • Active Years: 1957-1983

6. Paul McGrath

Paul McGarth training in a vintage Ireland national team kit

Paul McGrath is one of the best Irish soccer players of all time and could be the nation’s greatest defender. His career began in 1981 with St Patrick’s Athletic. He made 26 league appearances for the Saints before moving to England and signing with Manchester United. Between 1982 and 89, McGrath played a crucial role in the team, making 203 appearances. After Manchester, he came to Aston Villa, a club where he played some of his best football. He stayed with Villa until 1996 before a move to Derby, a loan to Sheffield United, and then one last season with the Blades before retirement.

McGrath had a troubled personal life as a child. He was forcibly taken from his mother, who had a child with a Nigerian man out of wedlock. He spent much of his life in foster homes and suffered mental breakdowns and multiple suicide attempts. If you were watching McGrath during his heyday, you would have no idea of the trauma and struggles he was dealing with. He was an alcoholic and admitted to playing top-level soccer games while under the influence.

Even with what seems like the entire world against him, McGrath was an exceptional player. He made 83 appearances for the Republic of Ireland and was one of the best players in the first season of the Premier League. If you want to know more about one of Ireland’s best soccer players, check out McGrath’s autobiography, Back from the Brink.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 83
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 8
  • Club Appearances: 598
  • Club Goals: 31
  • Active Years: 1981-1998

5. Liam Brady

Liam Brady and Pat Jennings pose for a photo during a testimonial

Liam Brady began his football career with Arsenal in 1973. He stayed with the club for seven years, making over 235 league appearances and scoring over 40 goals. Brady then played his soccer abroad, winning the Serie A title with Juventus in consecutive seasons between 1980 and 1982. After Juve was Sampdoria, where he stayed another two seasons before moving to Inter Milan. Brady had one final season with Ascoli before moving back to England in 1987. In the final three years of his career, he played for West Ham United, appearing in 89 league games.

Brady was the first player from outside the UK to win the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award in 1979. His international career began in 1974 and he won 72 caps over 16 years with the Irish soccer team. He scored nine times for his country, but he missed out on some important moments for Ireland. Because of a suspension, he missed Euro 88. Plus, he retired from international football during the 1990 Italian World Cup qualifiers. He came out of retirement after the team qualified for their first World Cup, but they did not select him to make the trip.

Brady did not play his best on the international stage, but he is without a doubt a top Irish soccer player. He was the Arsenal player of the season three times, an FA Cup winner, and a two-time Serie A winner. They inducted him into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2006, cementing his place as one of the best Irish soccer players ever.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 72
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 9
  • Club Appearances: 694
  • Club Goals: 112
  • Active Years: 1973-1990

4. Pat Jennings

An old Pat Jennings shaking hands with the crowd at an Ireland game

So far, on our list of the best Irish soccer players of all time, we have focused on players from the Republic of Ireland. However, two Northern Ireland players deserve some recognition. Pat Jennings started as a Gaelic Footballer until he was 16. He played for Newry Town before moving to England to play for the third-division side Watford in 1963. After a year, Tottenham Hotspur signed Jennings, and he played just under 600 times for the club. He was the first goalkeeper to win the Professional Footballers’ Association Men’s Player’s Player of the Year award.

Although he was incredibly successful for Tottenham, they transferred him to Arsenal in 1977. Jennings made 327 appearances for Arsenal across eight years, proving it was a mistake to sell the ageing goalkeeper. At Arsenal, he won the FA Cup in 1978-79, adding to his already impressive silverware collection. When playing for Spurs, he won the League Cup twice, the UEFA Cup once, and an additional FA Cup.

When he came out of international retirement to play in the 1986 World Cup, Jennings became the oldest player to play in the competition. He played in the qualifying stages of six World Cups, won 119 caps for his country, and is one of the few players loved by Arsenal and Spurs fans alike.

  • Northern Ireland Caps: 119
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 0
  • Club Appearances: 1038
  • Club Goals: 1
  • Active Years: 1963-1986

3. Robbie Keane

Robbie Keane celebrating a goal for Ireland

Third on our list of the best Irish soccer players ever is Robbie Keane. Keane is the record holder for most caps and goals for the Republic of Ireland. He had a lengthy and fantastic career, featuring primarily in England and the United States. He played for 11 different teams across his career, including two stints with Tottenham Hotspur. Across his entire club career, Keane made 737 appearances, scoring 325 goals.

Keane scored 126 Premier League goals across six clubs. That leaves him 17th on the list of the league’s top goals scorers ever. He was also emphatic for his country, scoring 68 times across 146 appearances. He is the only player in world soccer to have scored one or more international goals in 19 years in a row. Plus, he is one of the few players on our list to play for the under-16, U18, and U20 Republic of Ireland national teams.

Keane might not have as impressive a trophy haul as other players on our list, but he certainly did his country proud. Becoming the nation’s record goal scorer and most-capped player shows how dedicated he was to the Irish cause. There is no doubt that Robbie Keane deserves to be on our list of the best Irish soccer players.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 146
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 68
  • Club Appearances: 737
  • Club Goals: 325
  • Active Years: 1997-2018

2. Roy Keane

Roy Keane yelling at Manchester United players

The best Republic of Ireland soccer player of all time is Roy Keane. The Manchester United legend built a reputation as a hard bastard, a feature he utilised throughout his playing career. Keane began his professional career playing for Cobh Ramblers in 1989. In 1990, Nottingham Forest signed him and he quickly became the hottest prospect in English football. Blackburn tried to sign Keane when Forest was relegated, but an administrative error gave Sir Alex Ferguson the chance to swoop in on the deal. Manchester United signed Keane for £3.75 million.

It did not take Keane long to thrive in a United shirt, becoming club captain from 1997 to 2001. During his time at the club, there were several high points and many career lows. That is the type of player Keane was. Dedicated, hardworking, and dangerous even at the best of times. He played for the Republic of Ireland 67 times but was famously sent home in the 2002 World Cup. Keane was outspoken about the poor facilities and lack of preparation in the Ireland camp. He went on a fierce verbal tirade against manager Mick McCarthy. He said:

“Mick, you’re a liar. You’re a fucking wanker. I didn’t rate you as a player, I don’t rate you as a manager, and I don’t rate you as a person. You’re a fucking wanker and you can stick your World Cup up your arse. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that somehow you are the manager of my country! You can stick it up your bollocks.” – Roy Keane

 

Keane is a pundit on Sky Sports, and he still delivers entertaining and stinging commentary pretty much any time Manchester United loses a game. He is an incredibly successful player and has gone down in history as one of the toughest to play the game. Keane was fantastic to watch throughout his career and is the best player to represent Ireland internationally.

  • Republic of Ireland Caps: 67
  • Republic of Ireland Goals: 9
  • Club Appearances: 676
  • Club Goals: 87
  • Active Years: 1989-2006

1. George Best

A photo of George Best in a Manchester United kit

The best Irish soccer player of all time is none other than Northern Ireland’s George Best. He will go down in history as one of the greatest players to never appear at a World Cup. Nevertheless, Best was a soccer superstar. After his debut for Manchester United at 17, he was the club’s top goal scorer in five seasons back-to-back. Over 11 years, he made 470 appearances for the club scoring 179 times. He won the league title twice, the European Cup, and the Ballon d’Or in 1968.

Best played soccer at a time when players would go out on the pitch and try to hurt each other. Manager Matt Busby’s fierce training sessions epitomised this, getting Best ready for life in the big league. Players across the division knew about Best and his ability even from a young age. They made no secret of trying to get through to him. Manchester City manager Joe Mercer said this about Best in 1969:

“It seems impossible to hurt him. All manner of men have tried to intimidate him. Best merely glides along, riding tackles and brushing giants aside like leaves.” – Joe Mercer

It is difficult for many of us to appreciate what a player like George Best did for the game, but his impact is still ongoing to this day. Above, we have a few highlights of some of Best’s greatest moments, but there are too many to count. He truly is the greatest soccer player to come out of Ireland in the history of the sport.

  • Northern Ireland Caps: 37
  • Northern Ireland Goals: 9
  • Club Appearances: 705
  • Club Goals: 251
  • Active Years: 1963-1983

Best Irish Soccer Players Stats

In the table we have included below, you can see the stats for every player available on our list. Do you think we missed someone out or got players in the wrong order? Be sure to let us know if you disagree with our list. We regularly update all our content at Novibet to ensure every article is correct.

NameInt ApsInt GoalsClub ApsClub GoalsPositionHonorsRank
John Aldridge6920673363StrikerLeague winner 87-8815
Niall Quinn9222475141StrikerLeague Cup 86-8714
John O’Shea118351515Centre Back5x League Winner13
Packie Bonner8004830Goalkeeper5x Scottish League12
Frank Stapleton7120618151Forward3x FA Cup Winner11
Damien Duff100848962Winger2x League Winner10
Shay Given13404890GoalkeeperFA Cup 2010-119
Denis Irwin56468229Full Back7x League winner8
Johnny Giles595620112Midfielder2x FA Cup Winner7
Paul McGrath83847825Centre Back2x League Cup6
Liam Brady72953278Midfielder2x Serie A Winner5
Pat Jennings11907571Goalkeeper2x FA Cup Winner4
Robbie Keane14668578251StrikerLeague Cup 07-083
Roy Keane67947357Midfielder7x League winner2
George Best 379688246WingerBallon d'Or1
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