Tuesday 22 May 2018

Daniel McDonnell: Michael O’Neill anger at defections is understandable but the FAI’s recruitment strategy is not the problem

Michael O'Neill
Michael O'Neill
Martin O’Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Michael O'Neill has a point about the FAI's recruitment of players from Northern Ireland.

But it's not that difficult to pick holes in it, particularly when you stray into the area of identity and what that really means north of the border.

The Northern Ireland manager is unhappy that the FAI have turned the heads of a large number of youngsters in their underage set-up without being sure that they need them.

It is an understandable grievance, especially as the IFA have spent money on developing some excellent players. O'Neill is doing an extraordinary job with limited resources, and his hand has been weakened by the loss of performers who signed an international transfer to switch sides and cannot go back.

He cited Daniel Devine, a West Belfast lad who plays with Partick Thistle. Northern Ireland regularly call on players from the SPL whereas Martin O'Neill can afford to overlook them.

This is why O'Neill wants his opposite number at the FAI - who is in a slightly difficult position as a former Northern Ireland captain - to enter into a gentleman's agreement to not approach players that have been involved with Northern Ireland between the age of 17 and 21.

Certainly, the FAI do have a scattergun approach to recruitment and it goes beyond this island. English-born players are frequently dropped into squads, in many cases never to be seen again. This is a by-product of flexible FIFA regulations that allow shopping around.

That has really complicated things for the IFA as players have basically used their system knowing it didn't tie them down. James McClean and Shane Duffy are the high-profile examples, although it's the lower-profile ones that have irked Michael O'Neill.

Michael O’Neill: Photo: Sportsfile
Michael O’Neill: Photo: Sportsfile

He went further, however, by asking why the FAI only pursue Catholic players from the Northern set-up. Does that really require explanation?

The FAI approach Catholics because there is a strong chance they grew up with the Tricolour as their flag of choice, and their dream has always been to play for the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland winger Niall McGinn was castigated in 2011 when he confessed to being a Republic of Ireland fan after a 5-0 defeat at the Aviva Stadium where he secured Robbie Keane's jersey.

Honesty was his mistake. Travel to any Ireland away game and you will hear northern accents everywhere. A history lesson shouldn't be required to lay out the reasons. One cannot apply sweeping generalisations to a complex situation. O'Neill and his good friend Jim Magilton are Catholics who are passionate about Northern Ireland and their appointments by the IFA were progressive.

Their experiences have shaped their views, but these are views that can vary from one town to another. From one street to another. Maybe even from one house to another. It is a matter of personal choice.

If the FAI went after players from the other side of the community, it would be a waste of time that would only open them up to derision. If they did make a mistaken approach to Paddy McNair, their poor homework should be criticised.

There is a common-sense element to going after players who are more liable to feel strongly about the cause, something that is quite important in the international football sphere. Would McClean feel as strongly running out for Northern Ireland? The answer to that is fairly obvious.

When the Creggan lad was called up to a Northern Ireland underage squad for the first time, he actually travelled under an Irish passport that was secured from Dublin - as is his right under the Good Friday Agreement.

He has spoken about his brief time with the Northern Irish age-group sides, and the sense of alienation playing for a side that still has 'God Save The Queen' as their national anthem.

Granted, it is true that if all Catholic-born players defected, then you basically would end up with a segregated Northern Irish side which would be unhealthy. But the anthem does not exactly paint a picture of unity. It came as a surprise to European observers at France 2016 who had not watched Northern Ireland before and presumed they would have their own tune just like Wales.

The retention is a headscratcher, proof that the IFA continue to be influenced by traditional voices who give weight to the feelings of those members of the nationalist community who will never care for a Northern Irish side.

If the IFA want to stem the flow, they should be calling on FIFA and asking them to tighten up the eligibility rules for all nations.

That would pose a few problems, though. After all, one of Northern Ireland's mainstays, Oliver Norwood, represented England at U-16 and U-17 level.

The IFA also brought English-born Callum Morris and Alex Bruce on board after they had represented the Republic at underage level, and Londoner Sean Scannell is about to do the same having played for FAI teams all the way from U-17 to U-21 level.

They play the game as well, but the FAI are better at it because they can offer some northerners a chance to follow their heart that is within the rules.

This is about identity, not religion. The IFA should know why the FAI are swaying players. What they should be asking is if they have truly done enough to curb the natural temptation.

Irish Independent

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