Sunday 16 June 2019

Martin O'Neill fuming Michael O'Neill played religion card and hints he won't make player deal with North

Martin O'Neill, left, and Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill
Martin O'Neill, left, and Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Martin O'Neill is disappointed that Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has gone public with his frustration over the rules that allow players born north of the border to declare for the Republic of Ireland.

The Ireland manager has also effectively ruled out a gentleman's agreement with Michael O'Neill that would stop the FAI from pursuing players that have already been capped at underage level by Northern Ireland.

The Derryman was surprised and disappointed that Northern Ireland boss O'Neill spoke out about the FAI's recruitment of players from the nationalist community and called him to voice his unhappiness as they had planned a private discussion on the matter.

He was aggrieved that the ex-Shamrock Rovers boss publicly raised the issue of religion and asked him to explain his comments - especially as the Republic of Ireland boss has not actively competed with his namesake for any player.

The FAI have taken individuals who had been involved in the Northern Irish underage set-up, but their senior manager says they acted within the rules and ultimately it came down to the player's personal preference.

And he doesn't see how a gentleman's agreement between the senior managers could function when it's really a matter for the associations. FIFA rules state that any player born in Northern Ireland can play for the Republic. The IFA have unsuccessfully fought this in the past.

The 65-year-old did not have that option in his day. "I can't see how that can be of any benefit to Northern Ireland," he said, addressing the situation.

"They are the rules. Unfortunately I didn't make them. They've changed since I was playing. I think it's something that needs to be worked out by the associations. Whatever Michael says and I say, we are managers at this time but we're somewhat transient.

"It's worth having a conversation about and Michael mentioned this to me and we were hoping to sit down and have a little discussion. So it was a disappointment for me to hear that Michael had gone on record and mentioned it.

"This point about a religion thing being brought up... and if Michael was actually alluding to my time. I'm sorry, it's rather distorted and just not true. The choice of words was the problem.

"I've not taken one player which he has admitted. Not one player. I'm not in control of everything. The most important thing for me is the senior side.

"In terms of senior football, he had to admit the other day in the conversation that I've never taken a player from him. I didn't realise until I was looking it up that Alex Bruce was the one who'd gone in the opposite direction during my time."

The Republic have been linked with Belfast-born QPR winger Paul Smyth who has already spent time with the Northern Irish side.

Martin O'Neill was impressed when he watched him in Championship action recently but stressed that he would not be instigating any approach. He would talk to the player if he came to him, and reiterated that the final call should be made by the individual.

"If the player thinks, 'I am happy with what Michael has done for me' I would totally abide by that," he said. "Why would I not want to speak to him (if an approach was made from Smyth's side)? But I am not imagining that if that's the case. Michael has done a lot of work with him. The player has the choice. I think that is very important and something that's been overlooked in this. They're not being coerced into doing this.

"I've mentioned this to the underage coaches. Don't be coercing someone but they won't be anyway.  And they haven't been.

"I think that's been the case. I cannot say much more. We have lost players ourselves to England. They are the rules. I met him (Michael O'Neill) at a game there recently and we had a very convivial conversation. He never mentioned these particular points. I wish he had done, privately."

Irish Independent

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