Ewan MacKenna: Does anyone in the Bogside or Falls Road really grow up dreaming of playing for Northern Ireland?
It's six years now, and it's a conversation that has refused to let go as if an itch clinging onto the back of the throat.
It was late on in 2012, and you were in the historical offices of the Irish Football Association - located in a grand house once occupied by Thomas Andrews of Titanic fame, with the staircase inside a replica of those which adorned the sunken ship. It was here you had come to talk with their chief executive Patrick Nelson about the segregation within and stigma around the IFA.
What followed was the sort of pointless, round-about rhetoric used to mask rather than fix issues that we've become used to with regards to the north, be it in soccer or in far more serious spheres.
"You talk about breaking down barriers and about initiatives, many of which are clearly worthwhile, but then you run straight into God Save the Queen as the anthem," you said.
"I don’t know. I don’t know. We are here to do what we can, as well as we can, and we’re proud of what we’re trying to get done."
"But has a change in the anthem been considered in making this a team for all?" you asked.
"I think we are aware of those feelings at this point but that’s about as far as it would go."
"So you haven’t considered doing something about it?" you inquired.
"So what are your views on players heading south then, like James McClean?" you wondered.
"I think that was his choice and we respect his choice. Our job is to make all of our squads as welcoming and open as they can be."
"Does the anthem not come into making it more welcoming?" you mused.
"I don’t know. You’d have to ask some of the players that."
The itch still flares up at different times, and this week was one of them. We don't know if Michael O'Neill used the term 'sectarian tactics' when talking about the FAI's pursuit of what are their own national players, or if he described how they go about this as 'weasel-like'. And if these were the terms, then we don't know why they were toned down in subsequent re-telling. But either way, the sentiment was clear, the latest bitter and piercing noise from six counties that never stops.
We could get into the two-faced nature of it all. Of how Oliver Norwood represented England at under-16 and under-17 level. Of how Callum Morris and Alex Bruce and Seán Scannell (soon) went north having played for the south at underage. Of how, despite claims the Republic only target Catholics, as if a shock, the likes Alan Kernaghan and Adam Barton have worn FAI kits when coming from the other side of the tracks.
Or how FIFA, in 2007, even tried to placate the IFA with a special offer allowing them to select those who weren't British nationals but came from Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, only for them to refuse. Of how Gerry Armstrong was brought in by the IFA to identify players who were 'at risk' of switching, meaning something obvious and dangerous.
But this goes way beyond the realms of soccer, as that's just the micro in what has always a macro issue, and a bigger picture to be stood back from and witnessed. Six years on and as much as we're told things have changed, so much remains odiously the same.
The notion sport and politics don't mix is a nonsense as they're deeply intertwined, but in the north everything is always politics. Indeed it didn't take long for Sinn Fein to jump on a point-scoring wagon in relation to O'Neill while the rest of us had to endure more farce and moan from a place with no self-awareness and, at times, little self-respect. Yet again, they reminded that politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.
* * *
For us softies from south of the border, Belfast has long seemed inhospitable and intimidating, even after flames were reduced to silent smoldering. Still, it's full of great people, with its boxers in particular a blinding and guiding light for everyone from paramilitary remnants to politicians. On that trip to meet with Nelson, it doubled as a chance to meet with the brilliant Carl Frampton.
He brought you to Tiger's Bay, the UDA stronghold where he grew up, and you discussed the idea that working-class unionists and working-class nationalists always had more in common with each other than their own exploitative elites. Feeling good he called you a cab to get to the train station but before long you were back glancing at your watch. It really was 2012.
"You're not from around here," immediately came the question from the driver's seat, as if the dialogue from a western right before guns were drawn. It made you eager to get out, but it also made you think about what being from such a divided place was like.
Michael O'Neill is no doubt irked by the loss of players, as other nations including the Republic are, under a vital and sometimes exploited rule that understands that economics, politics and sociology can force people from their true homes. His situation is far from unique and he'll be aware of the clear framework he must work within. But given the history of where he's from and the team he is over, there's also a responsibility to understand and project a tolerance around why players would rather play for what they consider their country, regardless of broken lines on a map.
Besides, why players living in Northern Ireland want to play for the Republic is partly down to their soccer and his employers. It's the name of their stadium, their anthem, their flags. Such symbols may seem petty and on that we'd personally take the Bill Hicks approach.
"'Hey buddy, let me tell you something, my daddy died for that flag.' Really? I bought mine, you know they sell them in K-mart, three bucks. 'He died in the Korean war for that flag.' Well want a coincidence. Mine was made in Korea."
However in a place where riots started and kept on going over a Union Flag flying for only 18 days on a rooftop, it's hypocritical and that's part of the problem with the IFA. Just as O'Neill wants it his own way on the player issue, they want it every way as well. Saying the barriers have been brought down, when hiding behind those same barriers they call tradition, is to self-serve and to alienate.
Yet their game is merely a symptom as this extends past soccer and it's a problem beyond soccer's ability to change, even if it wanted to. You can blame the past for current generations not wanting to be part of their set up, but down the line we can blame this present for much more of the same. If there was hope of Northern Ireland providing a third identity after Good Friday, it's long gone. The last European Championships may have been great for both their external reputation and image but, really, internally, how many pictures of Steven Davis do the IFA and O'Neill think went up on the bedroom walls of kids on The Falls or in the Bogside?
You want to follow, and believe in, and ultimately represent a team because that team represents a country that represents you. But who does this Northern Ireland actually represent? And crucially who does it absolutely not?
If you're a kid from a nationalist background, how would you feel about the attitude, direction, rhetoric and feeling being created?
A place isn't defined by its politicians but that's the danger here for half of the community. It's why O'Neill and the IFA ought to consider a potential player seeing a country he could play for not having a government in place because those in charge have brought it to a standstill due to his people speaking differently. They ought to consider that potential player hearing a member of that government engage in xenophobia by mimicking that language with the words, 'curry my yoghurt, can coca coalyer' from the parliament floor. They ought to consider that potential player seeing the ruling party take such amusement from his comedy that it was recited to laughter on stage at their party conference with props for some troglodytes in attendance to enjoy.
If they've a problem with losing players, maybe they ought to take a stand and stand-up for those players, because if you were a nationalist, would you perceive it to be your country or would you want to play for them? Not bloody likely.
No one poaches players amid such hatred and toxicity, instead players choose to get away. These young footballers are merely a product of their environment, as are their decisions and it's a case of asking not what you can do for your country, but asking what your country has and can and will do for you. Sure enough it works both ways, and there is massive idiocy on both sides, but no one is complaining about players migrating north thus the focus here.
Of course the amusing part of this is that even the sporting debate here will likely be solved by the DUP and that nearly sums up so much about their mess and their ability. A relatively tiny provincial group of fundamentalists, they've ended up running the UK with a sole aim of keeping it together but will end up uniting Ireland because they're so bad at what they do.
So common is this though that it's grown weary and become boring. All of it. The vitriol. The small-mindedness. The lasting hate. The ongoing lopsidedness. The soccer angle is a story that wants to be explosive but really it's more dull neediness trying to drag us all back into that cesspit.
O'Neill is unique and admirable when looking at his background, his role, and his success, and for that he's earned respect. But having reached that pedestal his actions need to speak louder than even Northern Ireland's attention-seeking screams. Instead though, on this he's mimicked their age-old predictability and bile.