Sunday 17 February 2019

Comment: There's one important reason why England's success could be hugely damaging for Irish football

Declan Rice (left) and Gareth Southgate (right).
Declan Rice (left) and Gareth Southgate (right).

John Fallon

"I can understand why English-born players eligible for Ireland might weigh up their options. England qualify for more tournaments than us."

That fact, uttered by Martin O’Neill during the Jack Grealish debacle, has taken on a new dimension in recent weeks given England’s progress at the World Cup and it doesn’t bode well for Ireland.

The battle for the allegiance of dual-eligible players is alive and kicking around the academies in England, with the Football Association of Ireland’s scouting team expanding their search beyond those with familiar sounding surnames.

Replacing the historical method of relatives contacting the FAI to alert them of eligibility, is the practice of networking and researching.

Just as Grealish fever peaked following his masterclass for Aston Villa in the FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool in April 2015, the name of Mark O’Toole entered the public psyche on both sides of the Irish sea.

The Crumlin-born talent-spotter, who like so many emigrated to England, had worked for Tottenham Hotspur before the late Ireland U-19 manager, Sean McCaffrey, enticed him onboard. That was 2006 and his track record since has been stellar.

From Sean Scannell (who recently defected to Northern Ireland having been ignored for a senior cap by Giovanni Trapattoni and O’Neill) to Grealish and, more recently Declan Rice, O’Toole’s methods and credentials have won the trust of players.

Even Harry Arter, who was in the system before O’Toole recruited him but played alongside his son, Mark junior, for Ireland, cited the guru as one of the reasons he rebuffed offers of switching back to England.

The by-product of football almost coming home for England this week is the lure it will hold over players.

Not only do England qualify for every tournament, future-proofed by their rising seeding, but the success of featuring amongst the four best nations on the planet is a game-changer. Long gone are the days of 1994 when Ireland went to a World Cup and England didn’t.

On-field triumphs are one thing but the fact those strides have seemingly been made against the backdrop of a harmonious camp constitutes another alteration. Central to the Irish appeal, as noted by Rice and his younger West Ham United colleague Anthony Scully, is the sense of camaraderie.

Several prospects have oscillated between the FAI and English FA camps in the past decade but Rice was the first since Grealish to be a genuine target for senior managers of both countries.

A U-turn of Grealish proportions is an unlikely scenario at this stage, considering he’s started and finished Ireland’s last three matches, but Gareth Southgate and his Technical Director Dan Ashworth have an extra fillip in their pocket if and when the next in-demand gem arrives on the scene.

They’ll be content in the long run if their players, on top of football, come home - even to the senior fold.

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