Martin O’Neill: religion not a factor in FAI’s cross-border recruitment

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill claims FAI bias towards Catholic players

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill at the squad announcement at the Aviva Stadium on Thursday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill at the squad announcement at the Aviva Stadium on Thursday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Martin O’Neill has said he is happy to sit down with Michael O’Neill to discuss their respective associations’ position on the shifting allegiances of underage players, but the Republic of Ireland manager has criticised his opposite number for bringing religion into the debate.

The 66-year-old spoke at length about his “disappointment” over an interview, with the Daily Mail, given by his namesake, in which the Northern Ireland manager claimed: “The FAI only ever approach one type of player: Catholic.”

The Northern Ireland boss made several other criticisms of the association’s recruitment north of the border, suggesting that players were encouraged to switch in their teens who would not ultimately go on to play for the senior international side. And he claimed that one such player, Daniel Devine, had been deprived of the opportunity to go the European Championships with Northern Ireland in 2016 because he had completed such a transfer under Fifa’s rules.

Clearly irritated by the criticism, the Republic of Ireland manager rejected any suggestion that his employers had acted improperly, observing more than once that in every instance the final decision rests with the players. On a personal level, he said, he had “not taken one player” from the Northern Ireland squad during his time in his current role, something he said that Michael O’Neill had accepted when the pair of them spoke in the wake of the interview’s publication.

‘Convivial’

Asked if the two planned to meet, Martin O’Neill said: “Funny enough, I actually did meet him. I met him at a game there recently. Fulham played at Craven Cottage and we had a very convivial conversation. He never mentioned these particular points. I wish he had done, privately.”

Despite this, he said, “My relationship with Michael is very good, excellent. He’s done an excellent job [but I’m] disappointed with the comments, and they were remotely aimed at me. I think the choice of words, particularly the initial online words, you know, became a bit of a problem.”

This is a reference to an early version of the interview, published by the Mail’s website and reproduced elsewhere, in which the Northern Ireland manager is quoted immediately after the line above as saying: “You could argue that’s sectarian in terms of your recruitment, couldn’t you?”

He is also quoted as suggesting that the FAI had approached Paddy McNair in the mistaken belief that he was a Catholic on the basis of his name, but that “when they found out he was a Protestant, they stayed away from it”.

Martin O’Neill said that “they were talking about certain players [but] I’m sorry, I have to deny that.”

The former Aston Villa and Sunderland manager was clearly put out by the broader suggestion and said that he had never selected any player for one of his teams on the basis of anything other than merit. Beyond that, he acknowledged that Northern Ireland and the IFA only really stood to lose from the rule under which players from any part of the island are entitled to declare for either team, something that was put in place in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, but said that all parties simply had to live with the rules as they are.

‘Accept it’

“I mention the example of the young lad who played for us at U-17 level who decided to go for England, and he’s ended up playing for Barcelona [Marcus McGuane]. It’s a big disappointment for us but you take it, you accept it. That’s fine. That’s his decision.

“Because of the way the rules are, there’s an element of where you think: ‘Can we get someone in? We can. We can’t.’ 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.”

He cited the cases of Jack Grealish, who ultimately declared for England after having played at various underage levels for Ireland, and Declan Rice, one of five new players called into his 30-strong provisional squad for the trip to Turkey and somebody who retains the right to switch allegiance to England as long as he does not play competitively. There had never been any pressure on Grealish to play competitively in order to resolve his future and there would never be any on Rice, he insisted.

Several older players, thought to include John O’Shea and Glenn Whelan, are actively considering whether to retire, the Republic manager said, and he did not deny the suggestion that they might be given a send-off in the friendly against the USA in June, saying simply that there would be an announcement at a later date.

Nailing their colours

Declan Rice

The 19-year-old made his senior West Ham debut towards the end of last season and has kicked on in style over the course of the current campaign, making 24 appearances, 18 of them in the Premier League. He can play as a centre back or defensive midfielder. London-born, he could still declare for England.

Kieran O’Hara

Kieran O’Hara of Manchester United. Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images
Kieran O’Hara of Manchester United. Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images

Like Rice, Manchester-born O’Hara qualifies for Ireland on the basis of his grandparents. The 21-year-old declared for Ireland in late 2016. Has been at United since he was eight years of age. He had a couple of loan spells away and played a handful of League One games for Morecambe in early 2016.

Darragh Lenihan

The 23-year-old defender from Dunboyne left Belvedere for Blackburn in 2011 and made his senior debut for the English club back in April 2015. Last season he played more than 40 games and is well-regarded at the club, but has only recently returned after missing the first half of the current campaign with a stress fracture in his foot.

Derrick Williams

The 25-year-old started out at Tramore then Aston Villa, where he couldn’t quite make the breakthrough. A move to Bristol City allowed him to establish himself and the left back then joined Blackburn Rovers in August 2016. A regular now, he has a couple of hundred first-team games under his belt.

Enda Stevens

Enda Stevens of Sheffield United
Enda Stevens of Sheffield United

The 27-year-old Dubliner left Shamrock Rovers for Aston Villa at the start of 2012 and looked to be breaking his way into the first team the following season when he made nine appearances. Having slipped back, though, the left back had to drop down the divisions in order to get regular football, but has done well in recent seasons at Portsmouth and now Sheffield United.

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