Richie Sadlier: Sense in Michael O’Neill’s suggestion lost in translation

Key issue is preventing young Irish players from making choices they might later regret

Michael O’Neill (left) and Martin O’Neill: The Republic of Ireland manager seemed to bridle over suggestions made by his Northern Ireland counterpart. Photograph: Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty

Michael O’Neill (left) and Martin O’Neill: The Republic of Ireland manager seemed to bridle over suggestions made by his Northern Ireland counterpart. Photograph: Sportsfile/Corbis via Getty

 

Tim Cahill is hoping to play for Australia in the World Cup finals for the fourth time this summer in Russia.

This is a far cry from the days he was effectively frozen out of international football having played as a 14-year old for Western Samoa’s under-20 team in 1994. His case led to Fifa amending its own rules to allow players transfer their allegiance from one country to another. Because sometimes we live to regret what we did in our teens.

In a recent interview with the Daily Mail, Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill spoke about this issue in relation to players moving between Northern Ireland and the Republic at a young age. He had a lot to say. Martin O’Neill was asked for his response at Thursday’s press conference announcing his Republic of Ireland squad for the game with Turkey. He wasn’t short of views either.

Given the complexity and sensitivity of the issues that arise from this, the focus was never going to remain on Michael’s central idea. Not when there’s religion, identity and politics to get worked up about.

He had suggested both he and Martin sit down and agree not to approach players that had represented the other country between 17 and 21 years of age. It would be like removing the disruption of a mid-season transfer window in club football.

Players could focus on the development of their game without rushing into a decision that they may regret. The associations could focus on coaching rather than poaching. Instead of seeing this as a suggestion towards a workable solution, it would appear Martin read it as an accusation that he was part of the problem. Not for the first time, his response was a little on the prickly side.

He began by explaining how the Northern Ireland squads from his own playing days were comprised of players from both sides of the religious divide. Describing those times as some of the most successful in the country’s history, he added that there was also a great camaraderie among the players.

“These things have to be remembered,” he said.

All in all, this would have been the right response if Michael had insinuated that Protestants and Catholics hadn’t played together for Northern Ireland before, or that they don’t do so now. It would also have been relevant if Michael had suggested that they don’t mix well together, that there are generally issues around unity and togetherness if you pick a squad that comprises both. Of course, Michael said none of this.

In fact, his current Northern Ireland squad could be described in precisely the same way. With a great team spirit among players from both sides of the community, they’re one of the most successful squads the IFA has ever had. Anyone that has followed them in recent years would be aware of that. This isn’t all about religion.

Recruitment policy

“I’ve never taken a player from him,” added Martin, as if Michael had suggested that he had, before adding that Alex Bruce had gone the opposite direction during his time as senior boss.

Bruce was 27 when he made the switch from the FAI to the IFA, though, and his case is totally irrelevant in the context of this debate.

This is about delaying young players from having to make decisions that have long-term ramifications at a time when the variables are too uncertain to make a sound choice. But all of this was lost amid suggestions of sectarian selection policies and the overly defensive response from Martin.

To be frank, though, a policy based on identifying the players most likely to transfer is a sound one. Targeting and pursuing players with no interest in declaring for the Republic is hardly an efficient use of what I assume are limited resources. It might sit uncomfortably that religious and cultural identity are big factors in such a decision, but that’s still the reality in many communities on this island. The FAI should hardly be embarrassed if their recruitment policy reflects this, any more than Michael should be criticised for simply pointing this out.

Daniel Devine: would have gone to Euro 2016 in France as part of Michael O’Neill’s squad if he hadn’t earlier switched to the Republic of Ireland. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
Daniel Devine: would have gone to Euro 2016 in France as part of Michael O’Neill’s squad if he hadn’t earlier switched to the Republic of Ireland. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

Martin said he believed it’s a matter of personal choice which country a player declares for, which is how any reasonably-minded person would approach a matter like this. An allegiance cannot be imposed on someone. It’s one of those scenarios where there is no wrong choice. If you have a pull in any one direction, for any reason at all, nobody should question the merits of your decision.

However, it’s not fair to encourage players so young to make decisions they can’t reverse, particularly when it comes to something as fundamental as their international career.

Once you decide to transfer your registration from one country to another, even if you never get selected to play for them, you can’t go back. That’s a hell of a price to pay for a move you make when you’re a kid, especially if you’re declaring for a country that doesn’t necessarily rate you.

Fifa changed its rules in part to protect such a scenario from happening, but the practice of switching at a very young age runs counter to this. Any suggestion that looks to limit this happening should be thoroughly explored.

Michael cited Daniel Devine as a cautionary tale, the player transferred from Northern Ireland to the Republic and then didn’t make the senior team. He would have gone to Euro 2016 in France as part of Michael’s squad if he hadn’t switched, but that kind of perspective wasn’t available when he made his decision. He’s not an isolated case.

There are several other players that made the switch from North to South, but their international careers completely stalled when they did. Forget the noise about sectarianism and the Good Friday Agreement, that’s what this issue should really be about.

The aim to protect young players from decisions they’ll regret is one that should be supported, so a sensible approach to underage recruitment should be adopted on both sides. Given the way this week has gone, though, we can be pretty sure it won’t be achieved by gentleman’s agreement.

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