O'Neill targets McClean in bid to stop North's talent drain
MICHAEL O'NEILL wants new Sunderland sensation James McClean to change his mind about committing his international future to the Republic of Ireland, and he could also make an approach to Stoke City defender Marc Wilson.
The former Shamrock Rovers boss made his first public appearance as Northern Ireland manager yesterday, and immediately confirmed that he would be training his sights on players who have defected south but have yet to make a competitive appearance for Giovanni Trapattoni's side.
O'Neill, a Catholic, played 33 times for the North, and has strong feelings about the high-profile losses. The IFA have unsuccessfully fought against FIFA's ruling that players born in Northern Ireland can freely switch sides -- including those who have lined out for the country of their birth all the way through the underage ranks.
"I've never hidden behind that fact that I think it's wrong the Republic of Ireland are taking Northern Ireland players," he said.
"What I would say to any young player is to think long and hard about the decision because, of the players who have made it to date, only Darron Gibson has played a competitive international for the Republic."
McClean, who starred for Sunderland in the weekend win over Manchester City and followed that up with a goalscoring display in Tuesday's drubbing of Wigan, was invited into the Northern Ireland squad for last August's Euro 2012 qualifier with Faroe Islands.
The winger, then with Derry City, refused then-manager Nigel Worthington's call-up and stressed a determination to force his way into Trapattoni's plans.
The Italian subsequently praised the player's passion, although he won't have really crossed his radar until the last week. He will have to decide whether to call the winger into his panel for the friendly with Czech Republic on February 29. But O'Neill has made no secret of his desire to turn McClean's head ahead of Norway's visit to Belfast on the same night.
"James McClean is eligible for Northern Ireland so of course he's on my radar," he said. "He has had an excellent start to his career at Sunderland and I actually tried to sign him from Derry City while at Shamrock Rovers. He's a very, very good player.
"Whilst respecting the wishes of the players, I'll be doing everything in my power and my remit to emphasise to them that their long-term futures lie with the Northern Ireland national team. Any player who is still eligible for Northern Ireland will come under consideration."
That extends to versatile Stoke man Wilson, who angered Trapattoni last summer when, ironically, he failed to show for a Carling Nations Cup meeting with Northern Ireland. After missing the August friendly against Croatia through injury, Wilson has been in exile. He won his sole cap in the Carling victory over Wales last February. Other 'defectors' that could be in O'Neill's sights are Everton defender Shane Duffy, Peterborough winger Daniel Kearns, and young Celtic attacker Paul George.
Duffy is unlikely to switch given how the FAI supported him during his near-death experience in the 2010 training camp, while Kearns was the subject of the Court of Arbitration for Sport case that opened the floodgates for others to follow -- the ex-Dundalk star fought hard for the right to change allegiance.
In the short term, O'Neill will be looking to bring a number of Northern Ireland players out of retirement, but his real work with a view to eligibility issues may well be working on the next generation.
He has also pledged to consider players from the League of Ireland. Worthington was dismissive of those who plied their trade south of the border, and bizarrely ignored the claims of McClean when he brought an embarrassingly poor side to the Carling Nations tournament last May.
O'Neill will take a positive approach, and hinted that some of his former Shamrock Rovers players -- in addition to midfielder Chris Turner -- could qualify. The 42-year-old is a huge admirer of Derry City left-back Daniel Lafferty, who has spent time on trial with Championship club Brighton this winter.