“I’m very flattered,” he gushed about being wanted by two international teams. “But I think I’m going to pick the Republic[of Ireland] purely because I think they are a better team. That’s no disrespect to Northern Ireland.”
So said 21-year-old Alex Bruce in 2006. Five under-21 caps, one “B” cap and two senior caps later and in 2012, the same man has been included in the Northern Ireland squad to face Portugal in a crucial World Cup qualifier on October 16. The defender had not played for a Republic of Ireland team since the 3-2 defeat against Poland at Croke Park in 2008 when then Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington sought him out in June 2011.
“I’ve just got to be patient like everybody else and see what the outcome is,” Worthington told the BBC. “When I spoke to [Alex Bruce] he’s been very enthusiastic.”
Worthington’s approach to Bruce was framed in the context of the contentious dispute over Fifa player eligibility in Ireland. In 2010, the Irish Football Association (IFA) had taken Fifa, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) and footballer Daniel Kearns to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland, in order to contest the legitimacy of Northern Ireland-born Irish nationals playing for the FAI. The issue, which remarkably stretched back to the early 20th century, was formally granted closure when the CAS ruled against the IFA, thus reaffirming the right of Irish nationals to play for the FAI under the current rules.
Smarting from the public humiliation and cost of the court’s decision (the IFA was forced to foot the legal bill for all parties), the approach to Bruce then, could arguably be seen as a symbolic strike back at the FAI – a desperate turn to the only recourse available to them. Of course, in reality the approach to Bruce was by no means ground-breaking. Indeed, the IFA had no issues when selecting players such as Tony Kane and Johnny Gorman after they had appeared for FAI youth teams, nor did the association have difficulties in approaching players that had been capped with other associations, namely the English Football Association (FA), such as midfielder Oliver Norwood and goalkeeper Lee Camp.
However, the case of Alex Bruce certainly provides a further rejoinder to the hysterical and overblown complaints that have been levelled against the FAI by Northern Ireland fans, since unlike others such as Shane McEleney and Johnny Gorman, Bruce has earned senior caps for the Republic of Ireland. His selection is an appropriate reminder that both associations are in the same business, that neither is morally superior and that both are willing to facilitate cynical opportunists if it enhances their playing pool.
Luckily for the IFA, in Michael O’Neill, the association have a professional individual who has been dignified about the entire affair, not allowing himself to be drawn into the ignorance and emotion-laden reactions of fickle fans.
“Players have options in relation to their international futures,” O’Neill told the BBC. “Alex has decided now on Northern Ireland and I’m focused on that. The past is the past.”