Keith Fahey is one of a generation of former League of Ireland players making a name for himself in the top levels of English football. He tells Amy Eustace about the journey he’s taken in football and also looks ahead to the race for promotion with Birmingham and Euro 2012.
Keith Fahey is one of the League of Ireland’s success stories. At the age of 20, sovaldi following an unsuccessful four years in England, he was uncertain whether he had a future at all in football. But seven years later, after a spell at St. Patrick’s Athletic brought him to the attention of Birmingham City, he found himself playing in the Premiership, winning the Carling Cup, competing in the Europa League group stage, and to top it all off, becoming a regular for the Ireland senior squad he had grown up watching.
Returning to England was a distant possibility when he came home in 2003 from training with Arsenal and Aston Villa, but when things took off, they took off fast. Alex McLeish took an interest in the Tallaght-born midfielder, who had established himself as a Saints hero, and just six months after he made the switch to Birmingham, he was lining up against Manchester United at Old Trafford on the opening day of the top flight season. His career had taken a massive, sudden leap, but he claims his first few months in the Championship eased the transition.
“My first full season in the Premier League was brilliant, we stayed up and finished 9th, which is the highest the club has ever finished,” says Fahey. “It was a big jump, but it helped that we were playing in the Championship first. I played a lot more and became a regular in the team, so the step up to the Premier League was easier.”
Birmingham lasted two seasons before falling to the relegation axe, but not without winning the League Cup – a feat Fahey had already accomplished in Ireland with St. Pats in 2003 – and thereby securing entry into the Europa League. Presented with a tough group that included the likes of Braga and Club Brugge, Birmingham were unlucky not to progress, but Fahey reckons there was a silver lining.
“We did a lot better than people thought we were going to do in the Europa League,” he says. “It was a good thing to be involved in, and it took the focus off the league a bit. There were some good trips, the fans enjoyed it and it brought us together as a team. But maybe it was a blessing in disguise to be out of it, considering the amount of games and the small squad we have.”
This year, the ultimate prize for Birmingham is promotion back to the Premier League, and they have the experience of former Newcastle manager Chris Hughton at the helm – a man who Fahey admires.
“Overall he’s an excellent manager. He’s up there with the best I’ve worked with. He covers everything, he enjoys working – he never puts work to bed, really. Tactically, he’s very astute and he does a lot of work on other teams. Everyone speaks very highly of him.”
Promotion, he says, is certainly achievable. “At the start of the season we didn’t know how we would do and people were talking about maybe mid table at best, but once we got the squad together we started thinking about promotion. At the moment, realistically, we need to make sure we can stay in and around the play off places. We’ve only picked up two points out of our last twelve, so we’re on a bad run of form. Our squad has been tested as well. We had a completely new back four [against Leicester last week] so we’re a little bit stretched at the moment, but we’re confident we can get the run going again. We don’t turn into a bad team overnight.”
All things considered, it’s a big year for the midfielder. This summer, he could be in for a trip to Poland, should Trapattoni include him in the now infamous 23-man squad. Trapattoni has put a lot of faith in the Birmingham man in the past, and once described him as ‘showing personality on the ball’, so it’s safe to say he’s among the many in the mix for a call up to the Euros side. Fahey, for one, doesn’t agree with some of the criticism the Irish public have levelled at the Italian coach.
“The players are all behind Trap. I like him, and he seems to like me,” he says. “The Irish public are funny ones to work out. We could have played expansive football and have been opened up, and we wouldn’t have qualified. I think the way he’s used his tactics and the players that he has, we’ve qualified for the Euros and that was the main aim. We’re never going to play like Barcelona, but Ireland were always a solid team – hard to beat – and I think he’s done a great job.”
Ireland are faced with a tricky group and will have to play World Cup champions Spain, Trapattoni’s native Italy, as well as a difficult Croatian side in order to progress. With Ireland very much the underdogs, Fahey is comfortable with the label. “Maybe being the underdogs will help us. I don’t think it suits us being favourites. I’m happy with the group. You want to be playing against the top teams. You don’t want to be going over, playing average teams and then maybe still going out anyway. At least if we do go out, we’ve played against those top teams.”
As one of a recent wave of talented League of Ireland players to make the move to a bigger league Fahey is happy to see that the trend is continuing. “It’s a good feeding ground for clubs in England and Scotland. I’m not sure that the league is growing. (Shamrock) Rovers certainly are but no other club has done as well as they have out of it recently. I think the league needs to find a level, and it looks like they’re doing that now with wages, outgoings and incomings and money and all that.”
“I loved my time in the league. It’s great for players coming back. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to keep playing football, then I went to Pat’s and I was playing first team football and living at home so it was great for me. It was a great foundation for me to get back to England, which ended up happening, but at the time I was just playing to play football.”
Regarding another return, he’s not ruling anything out. “I’d love to come back and play. I have fond memories of the league. But I’m 30 next year and I’d like to play abroad somewhere before I finish up so we’ll have to wait and see.”