Thursday 14 November 2019

Cross-border traffic still causes a jam

North-South relations remain less than cordial where football and the allegiances of players are concerned, writes John O'Brien

B y a strange coincidence the day the Good Friday Agreement was signed in April, 1998, Brian Kerr was in the city of Oporto masterminding his first significant achievement as an Ireland international coach. His under 16 side had just won a mini-tournament against France, Portugal and Austria and, as they celebrated, Kerr couldn't help casting his mind to the momentous events taking place in Belfast and the profound consequences they would have for Irish football.

It was a rather odd sense of presience, though. Already Kerr's under 18 squad included the west Belfast-born Ger Crossley, who had played under 15 for Northern Ireland and would be a key figure in the Republic's European Championship winning team in Cyprus. Crossley's switch of allegiance incensed officials in the Irish Football Association which complained bitterly that the Football Association of Ireland had reneged on a long-standing commitment -- the so-called "gentleman's agreement" -- not to pick players from Northern Ireland.

Crossley wasn't the first to do so, of course. A few years earlier, Alan Kernaghan had taken the nuclear option of declaring for the Republic but only because Northern Ireland, the team he had supported since childhood, refused to play him as he had no birth ties to the territory. However honourable such a strict policy seemed, it was undeniably harsh on Kernaghan and, as hindsight proved, hopelessly ill-judged and naive.

By and large, though, the loss of the odd player to the Republic didn't sting the IFA too badly. The situation was roughly analagous to the relationship that exists between the GAA and Australian Rules. If the occasional player was scouted and signed by AFL clubs then the GAA could grin and bear it and wish the kid well. When the trickle threatened to develop into a steady stream, however, patience began to wear a little thinner.

So it is with Northern Ireland football people. The stream of players heading south has left them frazzled and created a sense of despair. IFA coaches were under strict instructions from Nigel Worthington not to grant interviews last week, but what would they say anyway? They see players they had nurtured and grown fond of fly the coop and they feel hurt and despondent. They feel victimised by a larger and more prosperous neighbour. And whether those feelings are justified, it's easy to feel a certain sympathy.

To lose one player last week -- Preston defender Daniel Devine -- seemed hard. But the news that Newcastle's Shane Ferguson was set to follow must have seemed like a cruel double-whammy. Much

more than Darron Gibson at the same age, Ferguson, at 19, already looks the finished article. The Republic are getting a polished diamond. And given that he had already been capped at senior level, his defection will hit harder than any other case.

At his squad announcement for this week's Carling Cup games in the Aviva, Worthington cut a harassed figure, wearied and embittered by the constant withering of the playing assets at his disposal. He spoke about his repeated but vain efforts to contact Ferguson.

Worthington's call for further clarification of the FIFA eligibility rules, on the other hand, was little more than a cry of desperation. The FIFA eligibility rules are as clear as they need to be. At its simplest any player entitled to a passport by birthright will be eligible to play for a country provided he hasn't played a senior competitive international for another association. Anyone born in Northern Ireland is automatically entitled to an Irish passport. For FIFA that is the beginning and end of the Irish situation.

In arguing that players should be required to have a territorial connection in order to qualify, the IFA's pleas have fallen on deaf ears. They tried their luck with FIFA in the Gibson case but received little joy. Then they took Daniel Kearns all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2010 and lost that too. Read the judgement arising from that hearing and it is possible to discern the irritation of the sport's governing body that this complex Irish issue should have embroiled them for the guts of 70 years. And still no final solution in sight.

So it's easy to feel sympathy but harder to see where the IFA can go now. "I think you sit down with people and you have dialogue," offers one IFA official. "You get people sitting around the table in the right frame of mind. The FAI, the IFA, FIFA should get together and hammer things out."

The problem for the IFA, though, is that the sense of urgency is all one-sided. The FAI are losing nothing and can reasonably argue that it isn't actively poaching Northern Ireland players, merely embracing those who express an interest in playing for the Republic and who satisfy the eligibility criteria. And in bothering FIFA again they are dealing with a body long weary of a thorny political situation it doesn't feel the need to understand.

While the Gibson case was ongoing, FIFA made two proposals in an effort to forge some kind of compromise. It had recognised the unfairness of a situation whereby the FAI could select Northern Ireland-born players but, under FIFA rules, no reciprocal arrangement was possible. So it was suggested to the FAI that they might consider not selecting Northern Ireland players in future, in effect a return to the so-called "1950 gentleman's agreement". Not surprisingly, the FAI declined.

FIFA then devised a counter-proposal which would have allowed for a two-way flow of players. This time it was the other side that baulked. For the IFA it was too close to an admission of defeat and ultimately drove them to the steps of CAS. Yet privately IFA coaches now wonder at the wisdom of that decision. Opting for players not wanted by the Republic might seem like taking scraps from a rival's table but would it not be preferable to the prevailing situation?

One coach tells of a Republic-born player who might have made the switch. "He wasn't getting a look-in with the Republic," he says. "We couldn't understand it. He'd have been in our under 19s or 21s no problem and he'd like to have played but the rules wouldn't allow it. In a club if you lose a player you're compensated and you might gain another. Here you lose and it doesn't work the other way. How is that fair?" It is believed that the issue of financial compensation has cropped up in discussions between Worthington and IFA officials though how far the association -- fighting tooth and nail on a point of principle -- would want to push such an agenda and how it would work in the international arena are open to question.

"Nigel has discussed it at great length," says an IFA source. "Nobody knows how it would work. But before Bosman nobody believed that a player would be able to get a free transfer. People said 'blimey, that's unbelievable' and yet if you take it to the highest level of the law then that's where something might happen. I think it's something we've got to look at."

There is an appalling vista to all of this, of course. Pressure being applied on players at a delicate age, the fight to keep them "loyal" becoming more intense and desperate. Last year Worthinton capped a 17-year-old winger, Johnny Gorman, who had already played underage for the Republic, in the belief he was still being pursued down south.

His under 21 manager Steve Beaglehole described it as "a battle" and it's hard to blame them for thinking that way.

Yet it doesn't always have to be like that. Take the case of Liam Conlon, a west Belfast Catholic and Linfield player before signing for Celtic last summer. Conlon is one of those promising kids whose name invariably crops up when international futures are mentioned. Yet on a social network page Conlon appeared to rule out the notion of a switch. "I've no intentions of playing for the south," he wrote. Clearly, Northern Ireland won't lose every battle.

Ultimately, it is the only way forward. Create an environment where kids like Conlon feel comfortable and are proud to play for a team that, gradually, is taking on more and more of a cross-community feel. And if there remain those like Ferguson and Devine who still feel their allegiance is to the Republic then at least it won't be because, like Neil Lennon, they were driven away by sectarian bigots.

As for Tuesday, it's easy to overlook the first international between the sides since their momentous World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park in 1993. Such is the lack of interest the FAI has made the magnanimous gesture of offering three Carling Cup games for the price of one while Northern Ireland will officially bring just 210 fans because of a supporters' boycott in protest at the FAI's alleged "poaching" of their players.

There is enough of an edge to off-field relations at present to make that a welcome relief.

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