Monday 23 October 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: The way we've used the granny rule is a prime example of sleeveenism

Jack Grealish has chosen to play for England
Jack Grealish has chosen to play for England
Jack Grealish’s decision to opt for England has brought home just what a squalid mess our Find Another Irishman policy has become

Eamonn Sweeney

Thank you Jack Grealish. You have done your non-adopted country a great service. It just remains to be seen whether we will learn the right lesson from the saga of the Englishman who, for some bizarre reason, wanted to play for England.

There's been something utterly demeaning about the way Martin O'Neill and the FAI have traipsed after Grealish, trying to hurry him into accepting the green jersey like it was some piece of dodgy merchandise which might not pass muster on closer inspection.

In the end Grealish didn't buy it and his refusal brought home just what a squalid mess our Find Another Irishman policy has become. Like many other tenuously qualified players we seek, Grealish would prefer to play for England. Unlike them, he has a choice in the matter.

We can justify this whoring after players who couldn't find Mayo on a map by wittering on about our emigrant history and London-Irish identity and a lot of other stuff which sounds like a particularly bad Pogues lyric. But we're not fooling anyone, least of all ourselves.

25 June 1990; Republic of Ireland's Tony Cascarino, right, celebrates the penalty shoot-out victory over Romania with team-mates Packie Bonner and Andy Townsend, 13. 1990 FIFA World Cup, Second Round, Republic of Ireland v Romania, Stadio Luigi Ferraris, Genoa, Italy. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

In our hearts we know it's wrong to pick players whose only qualification for Ireland may be one grandparent out of four or even, as in the case of Tony Cascarino, no real qualification at all. It's permitted under FIFA rules but just because you can do something doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. The way we've utilised the rules has been a prime example of sleeveenism, sharp practice and the search for a short-term advantage.

Picking up players with Irish parentage isn't quite as dubious as going back a couple of generations, though it's interesting to note that Martin Keown, who's spoken fondly about how his Irish heritage played a big part in his childhood, says he never gave a thought to playing for this country. As far as he was concerned an Englishman should play for England. There's not much arguing with that, is there?

Martin O'Neill: We have to be positive against Germany 

The only real justification for our trawl through the family trees of foreign-born players is the pragmatic one that without doing it we wouldn't be able to compete at international level. But this doesn't wash anymore.

Northern Ireland are on the verge of securing automatic qualification for next year's European Championships, something we won't come within an ass's roar of doing.

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill has brought in reinforcements ahead of the games against Greece and Finland.

With a much smaller population than us, they rely almost entirely on native-born footballers. Thirteen out of the 14 players Michael O'Neill used in their most recent match, a 1-1 draw with Hungary, were born in the North.

We on the other hand have already used nine players not born in the Republic in this campaign and had another three on the bench. They're all welcome here.

Northern Ireland's achievement is even more impressive when you consider that in recent years we've been poaching their players. The specious justification for this is to blather on about Windsor Park in 1994, imply that Catholics don't want to play for the North and ignore the fact that not only is their current manager a Catholic, but that many of their best loved players down the years have been too.

Our policy of luring promising young Catholic players below the border is in danger of creating for the first time two teams on this island entirely divided by religion. I won't impute any sinister motive to the FAI. This isn't about politics, it is once more about sleevenism, sharp practice and the search for a short-term advantage.

It's considered the height of sophistication to regard national pride as a bit passé when it comes to international football. This is the 'highly paid professionals' theory which claims that players would play as well for a foreign country as for their own.

On this reading an international side is basically just another kind of club side. But if that's true, why are Iceland nine points ahead of Holland, Albania ten points ahead of Serbia and Austria eight points ahead of Russia; why will Slovakia qualify ahead of the Ukraine and Wales ahead of Belgium?

Why for that matter are Northern Ireland on top of their group? Form and logic would have suggested otherwise so you have to think pride in the national jersey has something to do with it.

Would that same pride be there if the jersey was touted around to players from a neighbouring country? You don't see the Icelanders wondering if any rejected Swedes might like to join up with them or the Slovakians trying to tap up young Czech prospects.
After so much joy from playing for Ireland, Andy Townsend could have the opportunity to give a little back

The Find Another Irishman policy worked back in the Jack Charlton era because, pre-Bosman ruling, there was a lot more strength in depth in English football, something which can be illustrated by comparing the fortunes of two former Southampton players.

Back in the '90s the great Matt Le Tissier, one of the most skilful players ever to grace the Premier League could only win eight England caps. Ricky Lambert, an honest journeyman who doesn't inhabit the same universe as Le Tissier in terms of ability, already has 11.

Back then an Aldridge, a Townsend or a Sheedy might fall through the cracks and come our way; now any decent Premier Division performer has a shot at making the England squad. These days English, and Scottish, candidates are of poorer quality. Their accents are about the only thing Ray Houghton and Aiden McGeady have in common.

The big problem is that these unconvincing imports take the place of Irish players. Had Jack Grealish taken the bait a year ago it's possible Martin O'Neill would have picked him ahead of Wes Hoolahan. But not only has Hoolahan been our best player in the qualifying campaign, he is a home-grown player who has never had any other option but to play for Ireland. We are all he has.

Think of the Irish players who've been left out in order that caps could be bestowed upon the likes of Paul Green, Paul Butler, Alex Bruce, Jon Goodman, Gary Doherty, Jonathan Macken, Mickey Evans, Paddy Kenny et al.

The talent level of that little lot indicates that it's sometimes been a disadvantage to be born here. Too often excitement over the fact that yet another Englishman has declared for Ireland has ended in his hasty inclusion in the next international squad and a quickfire capping to ensure England can't take him back. Not that they ever want to.

We owe Jack Grealish our gratitude because he has exposed the ludicrous nature of the whole caper. It was bad enough to see Mark Noble blatantly use the prospect of an Irish cap as a bargaining chip for an English one, to see us plastering up to Jamie O'Hara and trying to attract Jermaine Pennant into the fold but the Grealish saga topped them all by spelling out the unpalatable truth. For most of our imports an Irish cap is nothing more than an admission of failure.

4 September 2015; Wes Hoolahan, Republic of Ireland, in action against Lee Casciaro, Gibraltar. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Gibraltar v Republic of Ireland. Est?dio Algarve, Faro, Portugal. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

What's really galling is that it's not just at senior level that Irish-born players get gazumped by imports. The English lower divisions are full of lads born over there who've represented this country at underage level. Surely we'd have been better off promoting our own homegrown talent. Especially when, as Jack Grealish has shown, there is a risk that all we're doing is developing a player for another country to snap up.

In fairness, though, the traffic usually goes the other way. Perhaps that's why the FAI remain so complacent about the fate of the League of Ireland, currently at a very low ebb indeed.

This is the league where Ronnie Whelan, Paul McGrath, Roy Keane, Seamus Coleman and Wes Hoolahan started out. Properly run and resourced it could be an invaluable boost to us at international level. But the attitude seems to be, if we don't produce enough guys at home, we can always pick up whatever trickles down from the system across the water.

Poor Martin O'Neill. Left waiting with flowers in his hand, looking at his watch and then getting the text message which told him that Jack had found someone else. Young Grealish presumably said, 'it's not you, it's me'. But he was only being polite.

It's not him, it's us.

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