Flying south: McClean the latest player to defect to the Republic
Why has James McClean, the hottest property in Irish local soccer, become the latest player to defect to the Republic?
THE timing for Northern Ireland really couldn't have been much worse.
In the week that they appoint Gerry Armstrong to stop the flight of promising young players south of the border, the hottest property in Derry stresses his determination to go the same way.
Sunderland-bound James McClean -- who is about to make the leap from the League of Ireland to the Premier League in a €400,000 switch -- has never even met Giovanni Trapattoni. And, judging by the comments from the Irish boss yesterday, there is little chance that he will be linking up with Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne and Co in Malahide any time soon.
Despite that, the 22-year-old considers an outside chance of involvement with the Republic of Ireland set-up preferable to linking up with Nigel Worthington's senior squad for a Euro 2012 qualifier with Faroe Islands tomorrow evening.
He contacted Worthington to say he wouldn't be turning up because his heart lay elsewhere. By now, it is a call that the Northern Irish boss is used to taking.
It's little surprise there is a sense of helplessness north of the border. They have tried and failed to stop waving goodbye to precocious talents who have represented the smaller country at underage level before declaring their loyalty to the Tri-colour. Indeed, by taking a case to the Court of Arbitration of Sport on the matter, they inadvertently made it straightforward for Northern-born players to switch.
The IFA had implored FIFA to enforce Article 15 of its statutes -- which stated that unless a player, or one of his parents or grandparents, had been born on the territory, it could not represent a particular country.
However, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, citizens on either side of the border can hold Irish passports. Manchester United's Derry-born midfielder Darron Gibson switched allegiance citing that option.
The IFA tried to fight the case of Dundalk winger Daniel Kearns and took the matter to Switzerland.
Alas, CAS backed up the FIFA interpretation of the Good Friday agreement, which meant that anyone born in the North can follow the same path. Unsurprisingly, it's only Catholics who have taken the route but there is nothing to stop anyone from doing it.
The sum total is that, legally, the football authorities in Belfast have little room for manoeuvre.
Instead, there is a realisation that they must fight a pitch battle to convince youngsters they would be better served by aiming for Windsor Park rather than the Aviva Stadium.
Therefore, bringing in World Cup hero Armstrong as an international player liaison officer makes sense. Armstrong, a Catholic, was part of a successful team with stars from both communities. His role, essentially, will be to make sure that players' heads aren't turned, and preach the message of his experience.
Of course, there is an idiosyncratic nature to all of the well-documented cases. Firstly, there was a gentleman's agreement in place that stopped Ireland from touching any Northern-born players -- and, in theory, vice versa -- until the age of 17. Gibson and Marc Wilson had brief involvements with the Northern set-up, before coming under the Abbotstown radar. Yet the cases of Shane Duffy (Everton) and Shane Ferguson (Newcastle), who have travelled with the Northern Irish senior squad, are a different matter.
Understandably, the IFA are aggrieved that players who they have invested in at underage level, and have gained from competitive U-21 experience, are plucked -- close to ready-made -- by the other side.
The fear is that it will cement a perception of the Northern Irish team which does little for their attractiveness.
Neil Lennon retired from international football when he received death threats ahead of his promotion to the Northern Ireland captaincy for a friendly with Cyprus. An unfortunate minority aimed abuse at Lennon because he played his club football with Celtic. The sectarian element was thinly concealed.
Meanwhile, Derry City manager Stephen Kenny has pointed out, in the past, the anomaly that is the poor representation of players from Foyleside in the Northern Irish international set-up.
Paddy McCourt was consistently overlooked when he was starring in the League of Ireland with the Candystripes; it wasn't as though he was behind a host of top cross-channel performers.
Derry winger Niall McGinn suffered comparable exclusion until he went to Celtic. A fair argument, you might say, only for the fact that inferior performers from the Northern Irish top flight were getting called in during the same period.
Similar disillusionment carried over to McClean's situation this year. Worthington brought a depleted squad to Dublin for May's Carling Nations Cup, packed with representatives from the Irish League who were duly humiliated.
McClean, who was tearing up trees in the League of Ireland, was inexplicably overlooked.
Maybe it's just a coincidence, but you don't need to be a history expert to surmise that Derry Catholics may not be automatically disposed towards representing Northern Ireland.
Gibson, Duffy, Ferguson, and McClean won't have found many role models from their area in Windsor Park during their youth.
It can extend across the rest of the province. Tyrone native McGinn caused a stir in the wake of the Carling Nations thrashing at the hands of Giovanni Trapattoni's side when he said that it was nice to play in the game because he'd always been an Ireland fan.
A statement like that was always going to rile a section of Northern supporters, but the 24-year-old was just being honest.
The fact is, without meaning to deliver a sweeping generalisation, huge numbers of Northern Catholics feel a natural affinity to the south.
It's always been the way. Add that to the reality that it's never been easier to swap teams, and the IFA are in an extremely awkward position.
Yet it would be too simplistic to suggest that every convert is taking an ideological and emotional leap. Belfast pair Tony Kane and Michael O'Connor followed Gibson, only to change back when -- to the cynical eye -- they failed to make much inroads.
A pragmatic decision to go after English-born Alex Bruce was also taken by the North, when Trapattoni deemed the twice-capped defender surplus to his requirements.
The IFA have ample reason to hope that Ireland's attempts to qualify for next summer's European Championships are unsuccessful.
For a major tournament excursion would add lustre to southern recognition, while Worthington's men toil in this campaign and have been dealt a cruel hand in the World Cup draw.
Sure, there are some things which could be addressed. Playing 'God Save the Queen' before Victory Shield U-15 games -- a contrast from Scotland and Wales -- doesn't seem to be the brightest idea. But stopping that is hardly a solution.
Plenty of Catholics have overcome that, and concluded that they felt most comfortable in the Northern Irish set-up.
Armstrong's challenge is to call on his powers of persuasion, and convince the next James McClean that the grass in Dublin isn't greener.
In doing so, he must challenge the law of the domino effect.