Friday 20 September 2019

Colin Young: 'More than your average friendly'

James McClean. Photo: Sportsfile
James McClean. Photo: Sportsfile

Colin Young

Friendly hardly seems the right description for any game involving the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and James McClean but that is the wording on the ticket.

And if UEFA have their way, Glenn Whelan's farewell on Thursday night between the two countries will be one of the last of its kind in a mid-season international week.

The Nations League, which is of far more importance to the two O'Neills - Martin and Michael - this week, has been introduced by European bosses to rid their members of meaningless friendlies.

Fair enough. But this game, only the second friendly meeting in the total of nine matches between north and south, at any stage of the UEFA calendar, is much more significant, and competitive. It settles domestic disputes for a while.

On this friendly occasion, both managers need a boost going into the final Nations League game. They need wins to improve their seedings for the Euro draw.

An unlikely win in Denmark is unlikely to save Ireland from the third pot after a thrashing in Wales and Harry Wilson's winner in Dublin last month for the return leg. And they have not played well for a while.

Martin O'Neill, managing for the first time against the country he represented 64 times, welcomes back captain Seamus Coleman and Robbie Brady, whose return could bring a new dynamic to the team. But he still needs a goalscorer to emerge from his Championship recruits.

Under Michael O'Neill, deprived of any regular Premier League starter, Northern Ireland will finish bottom of their group after losing all three games to Bosnia & Herzegovina and Austria, who travel to Belfast for the denouement next Sunday.

O'Neill v O'Neill comes a week after the FAI and the IFA announced plans for a joint bid to host the Euro 2023 under 21 finals. There was very much a united front on display by John Delaney and his counterpart Patrick Nelson at the press conference in Belfast.

Nelson said: "It made sense, particularly in a post-Brexit world, to consider how we can prove that organisations like football associations can straddle those barriers and work together for the good of us all. The other side of this is a tournament that brings the best young footballers from the whole of Europe and they are going to be on our doorstep, so we can watch them without having to go elsewhere."

The FAI and IFA could also be involved in a bid with the associations of England, Wales and Scotland to host the 2030 World Cup finals. Ireland have entered the early negotiations with the home nations, who have been encouraged by UEFA and FIFA interest.

With the under 21 claim in, the senior game between two countries will be under scrutiny by FIFA, and the two associations, police and supporters' groups have been in lengthy discussions to ensure it passes off peacefully.

The harmony comes amid the never- ending battle between the FAI and IFA to snare the island's best youngsters, in cases of possible doubt. The ruthless on-the-ground pursuit, by scouts and coaches from both sides, has become an acceptable by-product of a system which is unlikely to succeed anyway.

McClean played for Northern Ireland youth teams but he has made his own allegiance quite clear since. He is a rare exception, though.

At the bid launch, IFA chief executive Nelson admitted: "I haven't had discussions with John (Delaney) about that. It's up to us to control what we can, to ensure what we deliver is the best for young players. But we accept they have a choice.

"Our job is to try and build the best player pathway we can that encourages players to play for Northern Ireland and wear that green shirt - our green shirt, not their green shirt."

There were some minor skirmishes the last time these two teams met. Visiting supporters have been assured of their safety in Dublin but at least the hate-filled days of armed escorts and caged-in supporters are long gone.

This version of the Republic of Ireland versus Northern Ireland is nothing compared to the tense battles of the late '80s and early '90s during the Troubles, led by Jack Charlton and Billy Bingham when qualification was at stake, but victory meant so much more than that.

If you think the politics of FAI/IFA relations are complicated now, think back to when you had to be brave to cross a very hard border to play for or support either country or when visiting supporters were banned from travelling completely.

Nelson said: "We've done all the planning we can to try to ensure the game passes off peacefully. Our supporters have proved over the years they represent Northern Ireland very well and we hope they continue to do that."

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