Sunday 16 June 2019

Granny rules okay for the 'predatory' boys in green

WHEN the Algerian delegation introduced a proposal to change eligibility laws for international football at last year's FIFA Congress, it passed by the narrowest of margins. The proposal was supported en masse by the African nations, unsurprising given that it was designed with their predicament in mind. The FAI won't disclose how it voted, but you can readily assume the Republic of Ireland was one of the few European nations in favour.

So the existing age-limit of 21 for players to switch their international allegiance was scrapped and, whatever the morality of it, you can understand why the African nations, desperate to widen their talent base, would wish to embrace it so thoroughly. And, given its history in the area of player recruitment, you can understand why the FAI would feel morally bound to support them.

Nine months on, the effects of the change are visible. In January, Algeria reached the semi-finals of the African Nations Cup with more than half a squad of French-born players, some of whom had won underage world titles with France. As of yet the Republic hasn't benefited from the ruling. But you can be sure it is only a matter of time.

With the selection of five Northern Ireland-born players in the Republic's U19 squad last month and the decision of promising Everton defender, Shane Duffy, to turn his back on the North, the spotlight has shone again on the FAI's recruitment policy and the apparent eagerness to revisit the heady days of the 1990s when some success and a lot of beer was had on the back of a vigorous embracing of the granny rule.

This renewed desire is easily explainable. For all the progress made under Giovanni Trapattoni, the fact remains that the country's most prosperous decade coincided with a steep decline in its football team's fortunes and when a long-term injury to John O'Shea presages a near-crisis in your defence, you know there are issues.

So forget underage development and the building of centres of excellence. FIFA laws to the rescue again. On Tuesday, Brian Kerr described the FAI's attitude towards the North as "unfair, seedy and predatory" and, starting with Eamon Dunphy and John Giles on RTE that evening, the former Ireland boss was widely criticised for his view. Yet, for years, Kerr was at the forefront of youth development in Ireland and knows first-hand how pro-active the FAI was when it came to kids being nurtured north of the border.

Because those who 'defect' are mostly Catholics with an inherent affinity to the south, our consciences remain largely untroubled. Yet, how galling it must be for Northern Ireland supporters to see players drift away and then, when they complain, to be met with the smug, southern riposte that there should only be one team in Ireland anyway.

Yet, sympathy for the North can only go so far. If you examine the cases of the players they have lost over the years, you'll find a common thread running through them. Darron Gibson was once lambasted by an IFA coach for missing a training session to attend a trial for Manchester United. Marc Wilson was inexplicably omitted from a Northern Ireland U17 squad when he was doing well at Portsmouth. Hardly the way to deal with kids who were now ripe for plucking by a rival association.

Nor is it valid to assume they would have declared for the Republic anyway. Last year Duffy, whose father is from Donegal, was an unused sub when Northern Ireland played Italy in a friendly in Bari. Duffy had travelled believing he would be introduced for the final 15 minutes. So why didn't they take the chance to all but tie a talented player down?

The brutal truth is the FAI have been at this sort of thing since the 1980s when their roster included one known illegal player and, probably, several more. They are past masters at it. Twenty years ago, the North lost Alan Kernaghan through a chronic failure in administration. Evidently, little has changed in the meantime. The North haven't yet learned how to play this subtle game.

Thankfully, some honour remains. Think of Ryan Giggs staying loyal to Wales when the opportunist would have embraced the flag of St George. Think of Dave Kitson saying no to Steve Staunton because he didn't feel Irish and didn't want to steal the place of someone who did. Think of the Scottish FA declaring Nacho Novo off limits because the Rangers striker had no Scottish family connections. Think of that soft, noble attitude and stop wondering why the Scots so grievously lost Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy.

What exactly was it that made us so morally bankrupt when it came to our national team? If there was anything wrong with Kerr's description, it was that he didn't go far enough.


Sunday Independent

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