Irishness irrelevant if there's eligibility and enthusiasm
The 'granny rule' has contributed hugely to our international side, writes Richard Sadlier
Clinton Morrison made his senior Ireland debut in August 2001. Prior to that he had been asked to declare for Jamaica and was also eligible to play for Trinidad and Tobago. He had previously said his preference would be to play for England, the country of his birth, but he had his Irish-born grandmother to thank for his opportunity to play for Ireland.
In the spring of 2002, Clinton and I were fighting battles with one another on more than one front. It wasn't like there was a need to stoke up our rivalry, but I remember attempts by journalists to do just that.
We were both in our early 20s at the time and top scorers for South London rivals Millwall and Crystal Palace. Both clubs were competing for a place in the play-offs for Premier League promotion and both of us were playing for a place in the Ireland squad for the upcoming World Cup finals. We were new to the senior set-up, but barring injury to any of the established strikers -- Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, Niall Quinn and David Connolly -- there wouldn't be a place for both of us on the plane.
Morrison had made his senior international debut six months earlier than I had, but I was asked about him several times during interviews throughout that period. Along with discussing how it felt to represent my country or my prospects for making the squad for the finals, there was a mischievous edge to a question which usually followed.
Did I have any thoughts on Morrison playing for Ireland even though he wasn't born there? The question was never phrased this way but I was essentially being asked for my views on having to compete for a place in the squad with somebody who wasn't Irish.
I assumed the aim was to provoke a response that would create a stir. Why not add a racial or nationalistic element to our rivalry? Or maybe it just reflected the personal views of those asking the questions. Either way, I didn't say a thing that would have stoked a debate on eligibility or what should determine a player's right to represent a country. Morrison was eligible to play, as I was, and he wanted to play, as I did. The only question for me was who the manager wanted to select. There were no issues beyond that as far as I was concerned.
The debate around the 'granny rule' is still alive today in Irish football. Martin O'Neill gave his thoughts on the issue last week following speculation about a number of players declaring for Ireland via this route. He's not in the business of pleading with players to declare an interest, he said, nor would he accept players who didn't show a certain enthusiasm for joining the squad, but he's certainly open to increasing the talent available to him. The search for new recruits will begin in the new year, something I assume most Ireland fans fully support.
I find it hard to listen to arguments to the contrary. It's been a long time since Ireland camps were made up exclusively of Irish-born players and staff, but at no time was an all-Irish-born set-up successful. Few would urge a return to that with any hope of qualifying for major tournaments. Most Republic of Ireland fans don't discriminate between Irish-born and those who are not, and they're not going to turn on any player because of where his grandparents were born. I don't have strong views on what constitutes Irishness, but I would never look to the make-up of the Ireland football set-up to help me decide.
O'Neill's view is probably in line with the overwhelming majority. If someone is good enough and keen enough, he deserves to be considered if he's eligible. As he said himself on Thursday, "we don't have a phenomenal choice of players so I will go with it". Debating perceptions of Irishness doesn't come into it.
Morrison had as much right to play then as I did, just as all the 'granny rule' beneficiaries of today belong in the squad if O'Neill thinks they do. If you object to a non-Irish player, however you define what that is, then surely many of the previous managers would have offended you too.
All of Ireland's appearances in the finals of major tournaments were under the management of someone born elsewhere. In fact, remove the contributions of non-Irish born people from the history of Irish international football and it becomes a grim and joyless read. Why would anyone want that?