“We have not had a Northern Ireland player who has opted to play for the Republic of Ireland since I took over,” Michael O’Neill boasted, in a recent interview with the Sunday Times. “James McClean,” he said triumphantly, “was the last one.”
O’Neill took the reins of the Northern Ireland team from a beleaguered Nigel Worthington in December 2011 following a disastrous Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. Under Worthington’s watch, Northern Ireland had just finished second from bottom in Group C and supporters looked on in horror as the team stuttered to a 1-1 draw against Brian Kerr’s Faroe Islands before succumbing to an embarrassingly comprehensive 4-1 defeat away to Estonia.
Indeed, Worthington’s tenure was a contributing factor in Northern Ireland’s plunge to their lowest ever FIFA ranking (in September 2012, they ranked at 129) and, as results on the pitch failed to go their way, so too did events off the field. In the summer of 2010, the ongoing eligibility row between the Irish Football Association (IFA) and the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), which saw quarrels develop over players’ stated allegiance, culminated in an almighty judicial face-off in Lausanne after Shane Duffy and Daniel Kearns declared for the FAI, with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) crucially ruling against the IFA in a landmark case.
However, despite the clarity and closure brought to the issue by the CAS case, and O’Neill’s subsequent work since assuming the reins (a tenure which, he happily reminds us, has appeared to stem to flow of players switching allegiance), the question of the FAI coaches selecting Northern Ireland-born Irish nationals for their teams clearly remains a sore point and one which inevitably seems to elicit the same tired old nonsense from those associated with the IFA.
Understandably, there is a lingering resentment attached to the matter. Somewhat surprisingly though, O’Neill, who has generally been quite diplomatic with regard to the eligibility issue, went on to air what he termed as his “grievance” with the FAI, insinuating that they were somehow “damaging” the careers of certain Northern Ireland-born footballers by selecting them at under-age level. He questioned why the FAI was “[putting players] in that position” as if to suggest the players had no part to play in the entire affair whatsoever, as if they didn’t make the decision themselves, of their own accord.
“This is my grievance with the FAI. There are some of our young lads who have made that decision and their international careers have gone nowhere,” O’Neill said. “Why put them in that position? For the ones who are playing it is great, but what about Eunan O’Kane? It is a big decision to make at underage level knowing that you can’t go back.
“There should be an agreement between the associations over and above the Fifa rule, but that doesn’t exist. I don’t think the Republic have benefited tremendously from the rule. Darron Gibson, James McClean and March Wilson. That’s pretty much it. The other players have fallen by the wayside and their international careers have been damaged because of that.”
Ostensibly, O’Neill is merely expressing concern for the careers of young Northern Ireland-born footballers, but the truth is that he is ultimately looking out for his own interests as manager of the Northern Ireland team and unfairly using players such as Eunan O’Kane as a sort of international cautionary tale to dissuade potential defectors in the process. These guys decided NOT to play for us and look how it turned out for THEM!
It is disingenuous and insulting to those young players who have made the decision to declare for the FAI. In any case, who is to say that 24-year-old O’Kane will never taste senior international football? He is relatively young and part of a team that recently earned promotion to the Premier League. As in life, nothing is guaranteed in football, so who knows what the future holds for O’Kane or, for that matter, anyone?
James McClean, the last notable defection from the IFA, declared his allegiance in 2011 and has tallied up a respectable number of caps since then. The Derry native is seen by some as a divisive figure due to his strong beliefs and the manner in which he defends those beliefs, but his forthrightness is also quite refreshing in an age where footballers tend to say nothing at all.
He was actually approached by Michael O’Neill about reconsidering his international future, but was not swayed by the overtures of the former Shamrock Rovers manager. “I have declared myself for the Republic,” McClean was quoted as saying by The Irish News three years ago. “That’s where I see my [international] future.” He added that if he didn’t get called up, he would “live with that”.
While they may not be as vociferous as McClean, others who have tread the same path will no doubt be aware that there is an element of risk involved. A player’s success at international level will depend on how well their overall career pans out and not even Michael O’Neill can guarantee that.