Monday 21 January 2019

Comment: Michael O'Neill got a bee out of his bonnet and it stung where he intended it to hurt

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill

Jim Gracey

Michael O'Neill will have known when he spoke out to expect brickbats and bouquets to fly his way in equal measure following his comments on the FAI's approach to the recruitment of Northern Ireland qualified footballers.

As with all territory and nationality-related debates on this island, there is no middle ground.

The criticism he has shipped from the shouty on social media, where everyone's opinion is right and opposing views are routinely trashed, won't have bothered him. He doesn't do Twitter or the like.

Nor was he out to win popularity contests on the other side of the interminable argument.

Michael spoke out, as he has before, frequently, because the issue of losing young players to the Republic is his biggest single bone of contention out of all he has to deal with as manager of Northern Ireland.

But this time he has touched a raw nerve with his assertion that the FAI are targeting only players from a nationalist background to switch allegiance.

The clear inference is that they are not interested in players of the Protestant/unionist persuasion, believing, no doubt, that they wouldn't be interested.

Who knows if you don't ask?

There is a precedent with Bangor Protestant-raised Alan Kernaghan exercising his right to play for the Republic in the 1990s.

Back then it was Alan's only choice if he wanted to play international football as the rigid IFA rules of the time prevented him being picked for his homeland, being born in England of English parentage, even though he had lived all his life from infancy in north Down.

The birthright of his Northern Ireland grandparents didn't count back then, as it would now, and it could be argued that is when the rod for Michael's back was carved.

Michael may be correct in all his assertions, another being the poaching of young players who have come through the Northern Ireland under-age system after a lot of coaching investment from the IFA. Even the fiercest critics of his views cannot dispute what he says is going on.

But Michael is banging his head against more than one brick wall.

Firstly, the FAI did not make the eligibility rules that weigh heavily in their favour. Fifa decreed those and the FAI are merely implementing, or exploiting them, depending on your point of view.

And then there is freedom of choice. Expression of identity is a desire that no one should seek to stifle. The rules apart, Michael is also contending parental preference and, in some cases, peer pressure. The counter argument that Northern Ireland offer better opportunities to break through no longer holds, thanks to the raised standards and competition for places Michael has created.

Nevertheless, he says: "I can list you 10 players who have made that decision and have never represented the Republic."

He may be right in all he says, but reality is ranged against him.

But could there be method in his re-engagement, out of the blue, in a battle he seemingly can't win?

His pointing out of a recruitment policy that looks to be based on religious and political lines will not sit comfortably with the FAI.

And might it pave the way for the compromise or 'gentleman's agreement' as he calls it, with his friend and namesake Martin O'Neill, the Republic manager, not to target players who have represented Northern Ireland at age 17 to 21?

It's possible, but unlikely, and purely for football reasons between football rivals. It would be akin to Liverpool or Manchester United asking Everton or Man City not to covet their academy products, as they do all the time.

You never know with Martin, and it will be interesting to hear what he has to say when he names his squad tomorrow for the friendly game with Turkey later this month. For now, Michael has got a bee out of his bonnet and may have to be content that it stung where he intended it to hurt.

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