Why I chose to play for Ireland - former internationals explain their decisions
Heroes, coaches, family, an unexpected opportunity . . . with everyone waiting for Jack Grealish to decide on his international future, former Irish internationals explain to John Hynes what influenced them to opt for the green shirt
‘Ireland offered me a chance, Wales didn’t’
“I was 16 or 17 and had been doing okay with Hereford United,” explains the man from Builth Wells in Wales.
“Then the phone rang. It was an Irish voice and they said I’d been selected for an upcoming U-18 game. I still have no idea who I actually spoke to. Until that moment I can honestly say I’d never thought about international football, for any country.”
His right to wear a green shirt came about because of his father’s family. “They were from just outside Ennis. As a kid I’d been over there to visit my relatives quite a few times.”
After putting the phone down he immediately began to consider his options. “Wales also had an underage fixture coming up. I decided to ring the Welsh FA and tell them Ireland had been in touch. I wanted to know if they were planning on including me in their squad.”
His request was greeted with disdain. ‘We aren’t in the business of telling people before it’s announced’ was the short answer Sheedy received.
“That made my mind up. I rang the FAI back and told them I’d be delighted to play. If I’d had loads of time to pick a country I honestly don’t know which way I would have gone. I was never in that situation though. Ireland were offering me a chance, Wales weren’t, so my mind was made up for me.”
‘Not being born there was never a problem’
“Others might have mentioned the fact that I wasn’t born in Ireland but it was never a problem for me. My dad was from Donegal so I never really thought of it as a big issue.
“Even now, when I hear the Irish national anthem being played the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It’s a really passionate song and always makes me think of my father.”
When Houghton started out in the game his dad had mentioned the possibility of one day pulling on a green shirt.
“He’d suggested it, but at the time trying to just become a professional footballer was tough enough.
“That was the first challenge for me. I got all the ‘you’re too small’ rubbish that players of my stature usually get. So I had to overcome those hurdles first. Thankfully my attitude was always to never give in and I eventually made it.”
‘Ronnie was my hero and he told me to do it’
As a member of the Bolton Wanders side that consistently caused cup upsets in the early to mid-1990s it was no surprise when the chance to play international football came the midfielder’s way.
Hailing from Birkenhead, he could have worn the three lions but, with an Irish grandfather, there was an Irish option too
“There had been a few rumours, then Jimmy Armfield who was working with the FA at the time asked me to play for England.
“A week later Jack Charlton turned up to watch our game. Afterwards he mentioned the World Cup in America. He didn’t guarantee anything but said I had a chance. So I asked him to let me have a week to think about it.
“With my family’s Irish roots I’d always kept an eye on the team’s progress.
“I also had Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton, John Aldridge and Steve Staunton who were all great players for Liverpool and legends I really looked up to.”
Despite those factors it obviously required serious thought and McAteer had some experienced heads to call upon for advice.
“Bruce Rioch (Bolton manager) was born in England but played for Scotland so he understood my dilemma.”
Then, still undecided, McAteer made the short trip to Anfield to watch Liverpool.
“I met Ronnie (Whelan) and he told me playing for Ireland would be the best thing I’d ever do. When Ronnie – one of your all-time heroes – tells you that you can’t do anything else. My mind was made up and I remember ringing Jack up and saying I’d love to come over to Dublin.
“Me, Gary Kelly and Phil Babb made our debuts against Russia at a very windy Lansdowne Road. That was the start of something great. Ronnie doesn’t get many calls right but he was spot on with that one.”
‘I was born in Dublin but it never felt like home’
“My memory’s a little suspect, but I think I’d been asked to play for Ireland even before I became established at Liverpool. I guess someone in the Republic set-up must have heard I had an Irish connection.
“I was born in Dublin in 1947 and spent a decade there, but it never fully felt like home because I think we were always going to move back to England where all the rest of my family originally came from. I think that was always on the cards.
“They’d come across to Ireland when my dad got a job as a consulting engineer at Busaras in Dublin. I was born around then and that’s why I was eligible for the green shirt.”
Unfortunately he didn’t always get the chance to wear it, as Liverpool boss Bill Shankly sometimes intervened.
“There were times when the boss would withdraw me from squads without telling me. I’d only find out after the game had taken place. It was easy for him to do that because I was the only Irish player at the club, so if he didn’t tell me about it, nobody else would. Back then Ireland didn’t receive much coverage; it was all about the England and Scotland fixtures.
“It made sense (Shankly withdrawing me). I wasn’t a big powerful player so I needed to look after myself. Near the end of every season I had to be careful that I didn’t play too much, so that’s what Bill was guaranteeing.
“Because I came into football so late I think I did need some of those games off. If I’d been part of the England squad with all those extra fixtures I’m not sure I would have survived at the highest level for so long.”
When Heighway did actually hear about international action and made the trip across the Irish Sea it was a slightly unusual experience.
“For most of the players it was a chance to return home and see their family and friends. In my case it was different because I didn’t know anyone there. As a result, my trips were sometimes a little lonely. I’d go over and it felt like nobody at Liverpool realised I’d gone and I had nobody to see in Dublin, outside of the squad obviously.
“But I loved playing for Ireland all the time.”
‘My dad’s from Limerick and I was born there’
“My dad’s from Limerick city, his family still live there and I was born there,” he explains. “We lived there for about a year before moving to London.
“I still have lots of family back in Ireland: uncles, aunts and cousins. I used to have quite a few ticket requests from Ireland as a lot of my relatives are Liverpool fans.
“Playing at the World Cup for Ireland was never really something I’d thought too much about. When you’re playing in non-league you never think about something like that. It’s probably the last thing on your mind.”
‘Alan Kelly Snr found out about my link’
Lawrenson qualified to play for Ireland through his mother, whose family hailed from Dungarvan in Waterford.
“Alan Kelly (Senior) was assistant manager at Preston and he found out about that link. When you’re in the middle of the old third division in front of crowds of 5,000 or 6,000 you do not hold any thoughts of playing international football I can assure you, so I was only delighted to say yes. We applied for a passport, got it straight away and I was picked and played. It was as simple as that.
“I made my Irish debut against Poland on a Sunday at Tolka Park in 1977,” he says. “The previous day I’d played for Preston and the following Tuesday I was back there for a match with Reading. It meant three games in four days which would be unheard of now.
“I think Liverpool signed me on the back of playing for Ireland so it was a win, win situation. They obviously felt if I could do it at that level I was good enough.”
‘My mother and Alan Kelly made choice easy’
“I never really thought about playing on the international stage,” confesses the former Preston, Man City, Brighton, Liverpool, QPR and Osasuna striker. “Of course as a footballer you want to do it, but the idea hadn’t really entered my mind.
“At one point I was leading scorer in the first division while playing for a Brighton side who were fighting relegation.
“All the press were suggesting (England manager) Ron Greenwood would pick me; apparently I was a hot favourite to be centre-forward ahead of Paul Mariner and Peter Withe. Then when the squad was announced I wasn’t included. I was on standby for the ‘B’ team.”
It was Alan Mullery, Brighton manager at the time, who broke the news to Robinson.
And Mullery also informed him that Ireland manager Eoin Hand had been in contact on a number of occasions.
“Alan didn’t want me to play for Ireland because he felt I’d eventually make it into the England set-up. After he told me all this I decided to ring my parents.
“There were two massive influences that made my choice of Ireland easy,” he explains.
“The first was my mother who had an Irish background and obviously would have loved me to do it.
“The second person was Alan Kelly, who was my coach at Preston North End reserves. I basically owed my whole career to him. If it wasn’t for his influence I would never have become a footballer. He was the man who had most faith in me and always pushed me to improve.
“As a former Ireland international I knew he’d be really proud of me. Each and every time I was part of the squad was a brilliant experience. Can you imagine travelling all over the world and – wherever you go – you’ve got Irish supporters giving you the benefit of the doubt?
“I knew that they’d always accept me as long as I gave everything for the cause. And I always did that. I found it harder to be good at football but I enjoyed it all.”
‘Best decision I made was saying yes to Jack’
“I suppose I’d always had a divided loyalty,” the Birmingham-born striker explains. “My dad was pure green, white and gold. Then my mom and her family were pure England. I was brought up with that background. I was aware of both. I couldn’t honestly say I favoured either or wanted to play for either country over the other until the time came.”
That moment arrived in 1987 when his goal-scoring form for third division Walsall attracted an interested spectator.
“I’d had a stinker but scored. I was chatting away in the players’ lounge when the manager said: ‘someone over there wants to see you’. I turned around and Jack Charlton was at the bar with a cigarette in one hand and a pint in the other.
“How are you son?” he said to me. “I’m good Mister Charlton,” I said, “very well.”
“You were bloody rubbish,” he told me.
“I know,” I replied as I started laughing, “but I scored and that’s what goalscorers are supposed to do.”
“Do you want to come and play for me?” he asked.
“For the first team or the U-21s?” I asked him.
“The first team,” Jack said.
“Yeah I’d love to,” I replied.
“Okay, no problem,” was Jack’s response. Then he turned his back on me and carried on with the conversation he’d been having.
“I didn’t even know who Ireland were supposed to be playing. There was no internet in 1987. I couldn’t just log on or use my mobile phone to find out. Eventually I learned the opponents were Israel.”
The situation became even more complicated after an envelope came through his letterbox the next day.
“It was from the English FA and said I’d been selected for the U-21 squad to play Yugoslavia. So I’d had this conversation with Jack and then a letter from England. Then a letter from the FAI came too.
“I was sat in the house with my girlfriend Clare asking what to do. “What do you think you should do?” she said. “I think I should play for Ireland,” was my response. “Fine,” she answered.”
Someone else close to him also had some simple words of advice to sum up the situation. “What the f*** are you thinking about?” my dad asked. With Kelly senior hailing from the banks of the Liffey he could only see one option.
“I’m not really thinking about it, I just phoned to let you know what’s going on,” I said.
“That was it and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made, ever. I’ve been with loads of clubs all over the place and been fortunate enough to have a decent career. But the single best decision I’ve made in my life was saying yes to Ireland.”