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Football: SIMPLY 12 OF THE VERY BEST; Stars of the present and future fight it out to win the 2001 eircom/FAI award.

Byline: Michael SCULLY

THE YEAR 2001 brought Irish football back into the big-time - and the key players who were pivotal to that achievement will be honoured in Dublin next month.

The 2001 eircom/FAI International Awards will be held on February 10 and the nominations for Player of the Year in 12 categories were announced yesterday.

Of course, most interest will be on the senior award, which was won by Mark Kinsella last year.

Interest in the Irish side has shot up following Ireland's qualification for the World Cup finals in Japan and Korea.

The three senior nominees - Roy Keane, Steven Staunton and Shay Given - all played massive roles in securing Ireland's qualification for the finals in the Far East.

Although Keane didn't play in the final game of the World Cup qualifying campaign, his presence throughout was vital to our success.

He was a driven man as time and again he ran games, from the opening qualifiers of the year against minnows Cyprus and Andorra to the make-or-break ones against Portugal and Holland at Lansdowne Road.

He brought his international goal tally to nine with four World Cup qualifying goals, but, as Manchester United know, his real worth lies in his leadership and complete will to win.

But Staunton and Given will give him a run for his money.

But there are plenty of other categories too and the Young Player of the Year and Under-21 Player of the Year nominees demonstrate the quality available at international level.

The eircom League nominations will cause fierce debate, with Bohs skipper Kevin Hunt just missing out on a place despite leading his side to the Double last season.

SENIOR AWARDRoy Keane

ALTHOUGH he didn't play in the play-off second leg in Iran his presence throughout the Wold Cup campaign was vital.

He was a driven man as time and again he ran games, from the opening qualifiers of the year against minnows Cyprus and Andorra to the make-or-break ones against Portugal and Holland at Lansdowne Road.

He brought his international goal tally to nine with four World Cup qualifying goals, but, as Manchester United know, his real worth lies in his leadership and complete will to win.

Shay Given

ROY Keane may have been the driving force behind World Cup qualification, but it was 25-year-old Given's marvellous displays that kept Ireland on course.

He began the Group Two matches as second-choice but when he displaced Alan Kelly in 2001, the Lifford-born net-minder was superb, particularly against the Dutch in September and in the two-legged play-off against Iran.

At club level he also excelled after winning his Newcastle place back and it's no coincidence according that Newcastle are now challenging for the title.

Steve Staunton

STEVE Staunton began the year as a squad player more than anything but his chance came at centre-back against Portugal in June due to injuries to Wimbledon's Kenny Cunningham and Coventry City's Gary Breen.

After a shaky start, the 32-year-old became Ireland's "player of the campaign", according to Mick McCarthy.

It was a great year for Staunton, who re-established himself in the Aston Villa side and surpassed Tony Cascarino's record cap haul for Ireland. He has now played 93 games for his country.

YOUNG PLAYER

Damien Duff

LIKE Roy Keane, Damien Duff played no part in the final chapter of the qualification saga, but his contribution to the cause was very important.

It wasn't until June that Duff reminded the soccer public what he was capable of when he burst onto the pitch as a sub in the 1-1 draw with Portugal in June.

Days later he was employed as a striker in Estonia to great effect, and then scored his first international goal in August against Croatia in a friendly.

His partnership with Robbie Keane in the defeat of Holland gave supporters a glimpse of what's to come.

Ian Harte

THE Leeds player was the only Irish player to start and finish every one of the 12 qualifying games for the World Cup, and while that might in part be put down to the lack of competition at left-full, Harte did enjoy a good qualifying campaign.

The Drogheda-born player adds an important dimension when Ireland attack, and he has become Ireland's answer to David Beckham in the free-taking stakes - he scored three goals, including one against Iran, in 2001.

However, some might say that at 24, Harte is a little too old to be considered for this award.

Richard Dunne

MICK McCarthy has transformed the outlook of the Irish squad since he took over almost exactly six years ago.

Back then he inherited an ageing squad from Jack Charlton, but now the emphasis is on bringing on young players like Richard Dunne.

Dunne made the centre-half position his own until September, when all of a sudden he was relegated to the bench again.

Dunne starred against Holland and was a rock against Portugal and Estonia, but the return of Gary Breen and the form of Steve Staunton saw him lose out.

ALL THOSE NOMINATED

SENIOR: Shay Given (Newcastle United), Roy Keane (Manchester United) and Steve Staunton (Aston Villa)

YOUNG PLAYER: Damien Duff (Blackburn Rovers), Richard Dunne (Manchester City) and Ian Harte (Leeds United)

UNDER-21: Andy O'Brien (Newcastle United), John O'Shea (Manchester United) and Steven Reid (Millwall)

EIRCOM LEAGUE: Glen Crowe (Bohemians), Paul Doolin (UCD) and Owen Heary (Shelbourne)

YOUTH: Stephen Capper (Sunderland), Jonathan Daly (Stockport County) and Sean Thornton (Tranmere Rovers

UNDER-16: Pierre Ennis (Aston Villa), Ciaran Sharkey (Belvedere) and Glen Whelan (Manchester City)

WOMEN'S SENIOR: Sharon Boyle and Olivia O'Toole (both Shamrock Rovers) and Yvonne Treacy (Arsenal)

WOMEN'S UNDER-18: Maire Curtin (Lifford), Rachel Jenkins (St Catherine's) and Mary Waldron (St James Gate)

JUNIOR: Pat Holden (Evergreen), David Kane and Christy McElligott (both Ballymun United)

UNDER-15: David Cassidy (Home Farm), William Flood (Manchester City) and Edward Keyes (Leeds United)

SCHOOLS: Noel Hunt (Mount Sion/Shamrock Rovers), Brendan Sweeney (Deerpark and Cobh Ramblers) and Ashley White (St Macartans and Monaghan United)

INTERMEDIATE: Barry Porter (Letterkenny Rovers), James Smith (Cherry Orchard) and Stephen Yelverton (Rockmount).

UNDER 21

Steve Reid

REID may be playing in the Nationwide First Division, but he has consistently impressed with his brilliant form and versatility at Milwall.

In the three Under-21 matches he played under Don Givens, Reid was perhaps Ireland's outstanding performer.

Like the two other nominees in this section, Reid caught the eye of Mick McCarthy in 2001, and he handed all three of them their senior international debuts. Watch out for them featuring again in the upcoming friendlies.

Reid may even have a chance of going to Japan.

Andy O'Brien

THE Under-21 award will be keenly contested, as John O'Shea, Andy O'Brien and Stephen Reid all have had great years in both their club and Ireland shirts.

All three have certainly made their mark, as did Joe Murphy, the Tranmere keeper who was unlucky not to make the short-list after playing in every international at this level in 2001.

O'Brien made the move to Newcastle United from struggling Bradford City, and his form has been part of the reason why the Geordies are mixing it up with the big five at the top of the Premiership as the title race hots up.

John O'Shea

WATERFORD-BORN O'Shea finally broke into the Manchester United first team and got a run of games under his belt when Alex Ferguson experimented in his attempt to find a reliable central defence pairing.

Unfortunately O'Shea was injured just before Christmas.

Centre-halves are well represented in this category and it will be a close call.

Arsenal's Graham Barrett also performed manfully in this division and he is another who will be disappointed not to make it to the final nomination stages.

EIRCOM PLAYERGlen Crowe

GLEN Crowe picked up the PFAI and Soccer Writers awards for his exploits in the 1999/2000 season when he scored 35 goals in a phenomenal campaign and he has continued this season.

He already has 12 League goals to his credit, and there is no sign of any let-up from the former Wolves striker who moved to Bohs two seasons ago.

The 24-year-old made the headlines in late May and June when his goalscoring exploits, which helped earn the Gypsies the League and Cup double, earned him a call-up to train with the Irish squad prior to the World Cup qualifier against Portugal.

Owen Heary

SHELS full-back Owen Heary has been Dermot Keely's most astute signing - Keely brought Heary with him from Home Farm when he became manager of the Reds in 1998.

Although employed at left-back to accommodate Peter Hutton on the right

-up to Christmas, it was Heary's performances at right-full that really caught the eye.

His marauding runs up the flank led to interest from Middlesbrough, but the Cabra-born player has remained at Shels and his performances softened the blow of Pat Scully's departure.

Paul Doolin

THERE is a place in the short-list for Paul Doolin, who beat off the challenge of Bohs skipper Kevin Hunt to claim the final position.

Doolin, 39 in March, is an inspiration to players in the League. He continues to turn in top performances week in, week out in the most physically demanding of roles as a central midfielder.

But he has become a real leader on the pitch, too. Doolin was supposed to be retiring after Shels failed to win the League last season, but he came back as UCD's new player-coach after the summer break.

Continues to amaze.

CAPTION(S):

SHAY-WAY THE LADS; STILL NO1: Goalkeeper Shay Given has become a hero for Newcastle United fans with his displays this season; CAPTAIN: Leading from front; LAST LINE: Solid performances; VETERAN: Still as competitive; EXCITING: Can change games; KICKS: Has an explosive shot; ROCK: Impressive in defence; THE KINGMAKER: Mick McCarthy; TALENT SPOTTER: U-21 boss Don Givens; DEBUT: Broke into senior side; REGULAR: Robson's choice; SETTLED: Playing for Man Utd; DYNAMIC: Skilled marksman; CONSISTENT: Shels' Mr Reliable; AMAZING: Mature Student
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 15, 2002
Words:1657
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