And the merry-go-round goes ‘round and ‘round. No sign of stopping, it seems.

The indignation expressed by many Northern Ireland fans regarding the so-called ‘Eligibility Row’ shows no signs of waning and it will only be to the detriment of the IFA. In an age where the internet pervades almost every aspect of our lives, the anger can, perhaps, be most loudly heard on online forums, social-networking sites and blogs. The target of this outrage is primarily the Football Association of Ireland, but the players who have made the switch from the IFA to the FAI have also found themselves denounced.

The FAI has been ludicrously portrayed as a sort of sinister child-catching agency, luring naïve young men from football pitches around Northern Ireland in a bid to ensure that the IFA’s team becomes exclusively Protestant. Please, hold the laughter. Players, meanwhile, have had their characters denigrated with all sorts of accusations being thrown their way. Sectarian mercenaries, is what most are being called. All this for legitimately, and one would think reasonably, opting to play for their national team – nothing too serious, right?

Preston North End player Adam Barton is the latest in a line of players who have switched to the FAI from the IFA and, as such, he has been the hot-topic for fans to discuss. However, when the whole affair came to the fore in the Spring of 2010, it was Shane Duffy who became the target for criticism. When it was announced that Duffy would rather play for the FAI, the then 18 year old was branded a sectarian ‘Judas’ by Northern Ireland fans. Just over a year later it seems that the sour taste has yet to be washed away.

The social-networking website, Twitter, has allowed footballers and all kinds of celebrities greater interaction with their fans. Fans revel in this access and even a cursory glance at some pages is enough to demonstrate the excitement that fans get when their favourite player replies to their comments. However, it isn’t always nice, as Shane Duffy was to find. While he was taking part in preparations for a game, Duffy was subject to a tirade from an evidently incensed Northern Ireland fan, who stated that the 19 year old was a ’prick’ who did not deserve to play for his country. When Duffy replied, informing the fellow that he didn’t know what he was talking about, he was subject to further harassment. I feel that the angry fan’s words should be quoted verbatim in order to expose the pettiness (if you can, try to look past the poor grammar, spelling and punctuation – I’m sure it was difficult for the man to find clarity when embarking on a good old rant).

“lol… Im not your mate. U turned your back on your country. If u wanted to play for eire why did u ever play for ni at school boy level? Some other lad could have played in your place, prob would have given their right arm to do so. Anyhow u wouldnt have got on… Once everton release u and u don’t get off da bench for eire u will wake up and say, “shane, I made a mistake. I was a silly little boy”

Granted, this was the only occurrence of this kind of harassment on Duffy‘s personal Twitter page, but it undoubtedly reflects a view that has been expressed vehemently by a number of Northern Ireland fans on a variety of internet forums. Those who hold such views often protest that they are entitled to their opinion, but the simple fact is that such short-sightedness is a certain hindrance to the IFA, as it will discourage more players from wanting to play for them in the future.

In Duffy’s case, Northern Ireland fans seem to take offence at the fact that in an interview with the Irish Times shortly after his switch to the FAI, Duffy remarked that everyone in the Northern Ireland set-up had known that he was a Catholic and that he wanted to play for Ireland. The comment itself, from a naïve 18 year-old no less, was harmless, but there is a section of the Northern Ireland support who are intent on the vilification of Duffy, by twisting his words to present the kid as opportunistic, sinister and sectarian. Of course, it’s probably easier for those fans to engage in such disparagement than to look at the reasons why a young player might not have such a strong desire to play for the IFA. Indeed anyone familiar with football and society in Northern Ireland would have known Duffy was from such a background – at under-age games, his head, along with many others’, would be bowed low during the playing of the divisive anthem, ‘God Save the Queen’. Such a sight must surely cause severe embarrassment among the IFA chiefs and fans, yet there is still no sign of a change. Duffy had also shown indications that he wanted to switch the FAI from the ages of 16 and 17, but was persuaded to stick around by his coaches and Nigel Worthington, who offered him ‘carrot-caps’ as an incentive – tactical capping, as it is now known.

Duffy declared for the FAI at the ripe age of 18. That’s right, eighteen. And this after having played for the IFA representative teams for little over two years. It is now over a year later. It’s time for the IFA and its fans to wise up and move on.

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