FAI's policy of recruiting NI players is wrong


SOCCER ANALYST: Stephen Ward, who has made such steady progress at Wolves, deserved to get a call-up for tonight's game against Brazil, as well as Birmingham's Keith Fahey, writes BRIAN KERR

GAMES AGAINST Brazil are always warmly anticipated, but maybe the flavour is diminishing from this piece of chewing gum, seeing as it’s the third time we’ll have played them in six years. This one takes place in London, which is disappointing for Irish soccer lovers who have not yet emigrated in these challenging times, the venue the choice of Kentaro, the sports rights agency who manage Brazil’s affairs. They also represent the Faroe Islands, so they obviously go for the big fish.

With Giovanni Trappatoni intent on expanding the squad ahead of the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, it’s worth discussing the merits and morals of the selection of a Scot (James McCarthy) and a player born in Northern Ireland (Marc Wilson) for this game. Adding to the debate, of course, was Shane Duffy’s decision to reject his call-up to the Northern Ireland senior squad last week, instead declaring for the Republic.

Having selected Henry McStay and Gerry Crossley, both Northern Ireland schoolboy players, for victorious underage teams of the past, and having had early discussions with Darron Gibson about a possible switch to the Republic, I could be accused of hypocrisy – pot calling the kettle black comes to mind. But, what seems to be the Football Association of Ireland’s current recruitment policy is, in my book, wrong.

The Scotland and Northern Ireland cases are, though, different. McCarthy’s situation would seem to be very similar to Aiden McGeady’s in that both their families declared an early interest in their boys playing for the Republic.

Their emergence must frustrate the Scottish Football Association, but our little Republic snatching the odd player from a country that produced the likes of Law, Dalglish, Souness, Bremner and Jordan, in better days, is hardly a crime. At least they don’t share the same island as us.

But I do have a problem with the pursuit of lads who have played for Northern Ireland at underage level – in Duffy’s case even up to under-21. If either had declared for the Republic when they were younger then fine, but once a fella gets to 17, 18 we shouldn’t be dizzy trying to get them.

While a manager will always seek to get the best players available within the rules, direction and policy is required on such a sensitive issue as poaching our next door neighbour’s best players after they have been reared and groomed in that environment.

I remember distinctly on the day we won the Oporto tournament in 1998 listening to the signing of the Belfast Agreement and contemplating the possible consequences in football terms. As it proved, the outcome has been seriously damaging for the Irish Football Association now that all Northern Ireland citizens are entitled to an Irish passport and can, therefore, play for the Republic.

For a small association, it must be galling to lose some of their better players to their neighbours. Other than Jonny Evans at Manchester United and Chris Baird at Fulham you’d be hard pressed to name too many more Northern players getting regular first-team football in the English Premier League. In contrast, we have in or around 30 players who have appeared in 10 or more Premier League games for their clubs this season, yet we still think it’s okay to pursue the North’s brighter prospects?

Much has changed in recent times, not least the atmosphere at their home games, thanks to the magnificent work of Jim Rainey of the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs, along with the IFA’s programmes.

In light of all these efforts it must be difficult for the IFA to accept the Republic’s actions. While the policy is legitimate under Fifa rules, ably abetted by the Belfast Agreement, I feel it is unfair, seedy and predatory to have such a policy towards a neighbour. Just imagine if the boot was on the other foot.

Equally disappointing, for me, are suggestions that English players like Gary Cahill, Kevin Nolan and Jamie O’Hara are next in line for a call-up. There is no doubt their acceptance would be a career choice, once they give up on being picked for England.

We have benefited substantially in the past from players declaring for us, but the likes of Ray Houghton, Andy Townsend and John Aldridge didn’t leave the Irish people hanging on for a decision.

Meanwhile, the selection of the promising young Galway lad Greg Cunningham for this squad is, to me, somewhat irrational given his lack of first-team action at Manchester City – in comparison, say, to Stephen Ward who has made such steady progress at Wolves. Trapattoni said City manager Roberto Mancini told him Cunningham was a good player, but that’s a weak reference for the selection of someone who hasn’t been outstanding at underage level and only has 45 minutes of first team experience.

The overlooking of Keith Fahey is disappointing, but unsurprising.

Maybe he needs an Italian club manager to make his case? One hopes his previous spats as an immature youth with Liam Brady and Don Givens while at Arsenal are not being held against him.

An outstanding underage player, Keith lacked the concentration and discipline to make it in England first time round, but under the magnificent tutelage of John McDonnell at St Patrick’s Athletic he matured in to a class act. He added a surge of penetrating pace to his midfield play and it has seen him make dramatic progress under the wily Alex McLeish at Birmingham. I hope he gets a chance in the summer friendlies, but I wouldn’t bet on it if some of the English lads come on board.

For Trapattoni, though, this game is a vital chance to cast aside the demons of the Thierry Henry handball and to have a look again at some of his fringe players, like Stephen Kelly, Paul McShane and Leon Best, and, possibly, first looks at Wilson, Cunningham and McCarthy.

Their club managers certainly won’t want to see the likes of Kevin Doyle, Glenn Whelan, Damien Duff and Keith Andrews play the full 90 minutes so, if those relationships are to be maintained, Trapattoni will probably just use them for part of the game.

It’s a strong starting line-up, though, with only Richard Dunne and John O’Shea missing from what the manager considers his strongest team. Maybe he will even let the chains loose again, a la Paris, but somehow I doubt it.

Meanwhile, I’m off to try to get a passport for Alex de Santos, a Brazilian playing for EB Streymur in the Faroe Islands for the last six years. Dunga, Brazil’s manager, won’t, I suspect, be too upset if I succeed.