Belfast boy Mark Sykes ‘all positive’ about decision to declare for Republic of Ireland

Kenny has included the 25-year-old Bristol City player in his squad for friendly against Latvia and the Euro 2024 qualifier against France

On an otherwise unremarkable muggy night in Malta last November, and with the eyes of the football world on matters in Qatar, Mark Sykes fulfilled a boyhood dream. And carved out a slice of history to boot.

In the 85th minute of Ireland’s 1-0 friendly win over Malta, Sykes was introduced off the bench by Stephen Kenny – and became the first Belfast-born player to represent the Republic of Ireland since Jackie Vernon and Jimmy McAlinden in 1946.

Sykes, who grew up just off the Ormeau Road, had represented Northern Ireland at under-21 level and was included in three of their senior squads during Michael O’Neill’s reign in Belfast. But he did not see any game-time with the senior international team, and in August 2020 he stated his intention to declare for the Republic of Ireland.

His wait to play finally ended last November, and Kenny has included the 25-year-old Bristol City player in his squad for Wednesday’s friendly against Latvia and the Euro 2024 qualifier against France next Monday.


“Personally, it was unbelievable for me, and obviously a dream come true to represent Ireland,” says Sykes, reflecting on his debut. It felt like the time was coming as well, the build-up in midweek to the game, felt good in training, felt good vibes from the coaches and the manager. To come on the pitch, I know it was only a few minutes and I’ve mentioned before it wasn’t the biggest game in the world, but for me it felt unbelievable. Like I said, it was a dream come true.”

His decision to declare for the Republic of Ireland was not one that came without consequences, but since he was a child Sykes says his ambition was always to play for the Republic.

“For me it’s more so to do with the family side of things,” he said. “(Before the Malta game) people in the area were all week wishing me well. When I went back my primary school had a homecoming as such for me. It makes me feel proud to do something so good for the people back home, you know obviously being the first person from Belfast in a long time to do such a thing. I was well pleased, but hopefully there’s more to come.”

Northern Ireland were obviously disappointed to see him switch allegiance and there was kickback over his choice, though he protected himself from the fallout by staying away from social media. Still, Roy Keane suggested Sykes had made a “brave decision”’

“There shouldn’t be any backlash anyway. I feel like I’ve mentioned many times now, an Irish player playing for Ireland, I don’t see the problem. For me it was all positive,” said Sykes.

“Yes, brave in a way as there may be a bit of backlash and people not thinking it was the right thing to do, but I’ve said in many interviews now that it’s not them who is living my life. I’m out there putting the sacrifice in and hard work in, and I made that decision full well knowing what is going to happen. I knew it was going to be a difficult decision because I feel like if I was to stay, which is something I wouldn’t have wanted to do, I feel my foot was already in the door.

“And never being around the Ireland set-up I knew it was going to be difficult. But thankfully now with club performances I feel I have deserved my chance here, and hopefully this week I can get some more minutes.”

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times