Saturday 17 March 2018

Daniel McDonnell: Vexing eligibility debates have become the new soundtrack to Irish international football chat


Manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There are many reasons to crave a golden generation of home-grown Irish talent.

The prospect of regular major-tournament football naturally figures at the top of the list.

But another welcome offshoot of that would be the reduced importance of discourse on the issue of player eligibility, the topic that dominated Martin O'Neill's squad announcement for this month's friendly with Turkey.

Granted, the complicated Northern issue - brought into the news again by Michael O'Neill's anger - was the primary reason.

In that strand of international football relations, the FAI are the big fish with a strong chance of getting whatever player they want as they are going after Irish citizens that are likely to have grown up as Republic of Ireland supporters.

They slide down the food chain when the issue moves overseas, and there is a reliance on players from across the water who qualify through the grandparent rule.

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill. Photo: Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill. Photo: Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile

Declan Rice's inclusion in the squad for Turkey is a big deal because there is a dearth of alternatives with his profile.

If O'Neill was able to name 10 Premier League teenagers from around Ireland, then the case of Rice would be a footnote as opposed to be a headline-grabber.

Instead, it's a subject of significant interest and, while it should be reassuring that the 19-year-old is set to be on the plane for Antalya, it was the manager that planted a seed of doubt.

"I would never take anything for granted," he cautioned, when it was put to him that the Londoner's willingness to travel can be taken as confirmation of his longer-term intentions.

O'Neill was burned before by Jack Grealish, although he was never involved with a senior Irish squad. He referenced Marcus McGuane, the one-time Irish U-17 international who eventually opted for England and made a Barcelona debut this week.

With the Northern topic overlapping with his general ruminations, O'Neill stressed that he would not be putting any player on the spot. Rice will only be tied to Ireland when he plays a competitive match and this autumn's UEFA Nations League encounters meet the criteria.

O'Neill  suggested that it would only be a response to that call which would provide real certainty.

"I get back to young Grealish," he said. "He was enthusiastic and he enjoyed himself at U-21 level but there was no pressure.

"When there was a decision to be made, he and his family decided. And I understand that. He was born in England. His father is English too. It wasn't as if to say his father came straight over. His father was born in England. The grandparents were Irish and have a great old Irish tradition but he wanted to play for England.

"This is only a friendly game he (Rice) is playing in and if England come calling, I can understand it. That's the case until someone actually says, 'This is it.'

"But I don't want to be coercing players into making a decision now that they might regret for the rest of their career."

That latter point was repeated by O'Neill when asked if he harboured any regrets about not throwing Grealish in for the final minute of a competitive fixture.

"No," he replied, "Because he never wanted that. He didn't want to be in the squads where he could have been put under that pressure and I never went that way."

O'Neill has played things slightly differently with Rice, though. He was invited to Cork last year after just one West Ham senior appearance and spent time with the group in Fota Island.

Grealish never even trained with the Irish senior side. Manchester United back-up keeper Kieran O'Hara - another English-born talent - was also invited in from the U-21 squad to train with the first team in October.

That's a subtle way of trying to integrate them into the group without forcing it.

The hope for O'Neill, and Ireland fans, is that a week away in Turkey will cement Rice's commitment to the cause. It must be said there has been no sense whatsoever that the player is wavering; the Grealish case became a circus because of the noises coming out of his camp.

O'Neill acknowledged that there's an element of gentle persuasion about the strategy towards the player.

"When we took Declan on at the time (in Fota Island), he was an up-and-coming young kid. There was no pressure but I am hoping that will augur well because he had none of those things to concern himself with. Talk about England might have been a long way away.

"So it's a balancing act. You want to do as much as you possibly can to encourage the player to come and maybe try and convince him that he will have a better chance playing for you but it's a case where you don't want to go too far in the other direction."

That is the challenge, and the Grealish episode has planted a certain paranoia in Irish minds that has fuelled doubt. There's a self-fulfilling prophecy angle here.

Gareth Southgate's declaration that Rice was on his radar came after questions from Irish media.

It wasn't on the English news agenda. But it prompted a certain amount of panic here because Southgate was hardly going to say he didn't rate him.

It's a vexing subject and it would, of course, be easier if Rice put the matter to bed. But he's not the first and won't be the last.

Five Southampton minutes for Michael Obafemi made him a story too.

We're one saga short of introducing a transfer window.

Irish Independent

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