‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?’ – IFA & O’Neill’s concern veils self-interest

On the same day that Michael O’Neill read out a prepared statement reiterating his position of soft opposition to Northern Ireland-born players switching allegiance to the Republic of Ireland, Derry City made their long-awaited return to Brandywell Stadium. The Foylesiders marked the occasion in style with an emphatic 5-0 win over Tommy Barrett’s hapless Limerick and 19-year-old Belfast lad Ronan Hale came away from the game with the match ball having scored the first ever hat-trick of his professional career. He achieved that feat under the watchful eye of Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill – a native of the County Derry village Kilrea – who had come to the game as a guest of honour to cut the ribbon on the Candystripes’ redeveloped home.

Hale has represented Ireland at Under-19 level on a number of occasions and he will be hopeful that his recent displays have improved his chances of earning a promotion to the Under-21 squad. If he is included in Noel King’s squad for the upcoming game against Azerbaijan Ronan will follow in the footsteps of his brother Rory, 21, who was also involved for Derry in the game against Limerick. The brothers may even quietly wonder if they caught the eye of Martin O’Neill, who was taking in the  match alongside Football Association of Ireland (FAI) CEO John Delaney in the glistening new Mark Farren Stand.

Another Belfast native wasn’t so lucky as Derry basked in the glory of a triumphant homecoming. His name? Daniel Kearns. Like Ronan Hale, Limerick midfielder Kearns has represented Ireland at under-age level, playing for the U-19 and U-21 teams. He is now 26 and, as is the case with countless youth internationals across the world, he has not yet managed to earn a senior cap for his country. He still has time, but that is the nature of the game: there is only so much room at the top. Some Irish football fans may not be aware of Kearns, but they should familiarise themselves with him because he is a hugely important figure in the history of the game in Ireland. In case you didn’t know, he was at the centre of a landmark court case relating to Irish football that took place on the shores of Lake Geneva in the summer of 2010.

Back then Kearns had been a talented teenage footballer on the books of Premier League club West Ham and when he decided to switch his international allegiance from Northern Ireland – who he had represented at U-17 level – to the Republic of Ireland, a diplomatic incident ensued. He wasn’t the first footballer to make the leap from Northern Ireland to the Republic, but he was used by the Northern Ireland team’s governing body – the Irish Football Association (IFA) – as a patsy as they brought a legal dispute against the FAI and football’s world governing body FIFA to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne. So, what was the issue that had the IFA so perturbed eight years ago? Well, the same thing Michael O’Neill was fulminating about on Monday: players born in Northern Ireland opting to play for the Republic of Ireland.

The IFA ultimately lost that case, with the CAS upholding the FAI’s position on the matter, and since then they have, publicly at least, accepted that little can be done within the current framework laid out by FIFA to stop players from making the switch to their southern neighbours. Of course, that hasn’t stopped people – both those connected with the IFA or Northern Ireland supporters for instance – from occasionally venting their disapproval or frustration over the years and Michael O’Neill took the outrage up to 11 in a recent interview with the Daily Mail in which he was critical of what he perceived to be the FAI’s ‘recruitment policy’ regarding Irish footballers born in Northern Ireland. The response to that particular interview, which prompted Monday’s prepared statement, was starkly divided, with Republic of Ireland fans roundly decrying the inflammatory nature of his comments while Northern Ireland fans, on the other hand, enthusiastically cheered him on.

O’Neill was clearly irked by the negative response that greeted his interview with the Daily Mail and, even though the IFA were initially keen to emphasise the fact that he was speaking in a ‘personal capacity’ in that instance, they seemed content to watch on as he used his squad announcement on Monday to not only complain about being misrepresented and misunderstood, but to double down on his position, as well as further criticise the FAI. Eight years on from the failed case against Kearns, the FAI and FIFA, O’Neill’s statement invoked the kind of worn-out soundbites that have already been repeated ad nauseam by the IFA and their supporters: ‘all the money invested in these players’; ‘those who switch are selfishly denying others a chance’; ‘this is a football issue, not a political one’; ‘it’s just about fairness’. The argument is also doused in the familiar aroma of hypocrisy, given that he and other IFA coaches have facilitated – or is that encouraged? – under-age and senior players who may wish to play for Northern Ireland to do so after playing for another association. However, in suggesting a unique agreement with his counterpart Martin O’Neill for FAI coaches to stay clear of players aged 17 to 21, he has deployed a fresh appeal to emotion.

“I’ve seen a heavy price paid by too many talented young players; players who have transferred their allegiance to a country that ultimately doesn’t rate them, nor play them – creating an international vacuum for the player that signals a wholly different outcome to the career that they may have had,” O’Neill said in his prepared statement. “My request therefore, to the FAI and to any other association, is this: that if a young player has chosen to represent Northern Ireland at U-17, U-19 or U-21 level, that he is allowed to develop in these crucial formative years without the responsibility of having to make a decision regarding his international allegiance that is binding for the rest of his career.”

It’s clear what he is saying. He’s saying ‘won’t somebody please think of the children?’ These innocent, easily led children, not one of whom could possibly have any sort of thoughts or feelings of their own on the matter.

The Northern Ireland manager has cited a number of examples of players who have made the switch to the Republic of Ireland and then failed to achieve senior honours, holding them up as cautionary tales to others who may have the temerity to consider the same route. Think of the 25-year-old “West Belfast boy” Daniel Devine, who, we’re led to believe, would certainly have gone to Euro 2016 if only he hadn’t been duped into declaring his allegiance to the FAI. Ireland international Eunan O’Kane, who currently plays for Leeds United, has similarly been judged by Michael O’Neill for his choice. Back in 2015, O’Kane was O’Neill’s go-to example of the dreaded switch not working out, but the Derry native then went on to make a number of appearances in 2016 and 2017, and is now a squad regular. The pretence is that sticking with Northern Ireland would effectively guarantee such players an international career instead of being jettisoned by associations who ‘ultimately don’t rate them’, which, of course, is a totally disingenuous position. Would Kearns, for example, have gone to Euro 2016?

O’Neill concluded his Helen Lovejoy impression on Monday with suitably emotive language. The IFA and the FAI, he claimed, have a responsibility and obligation to “nurture talent…to protect those young talents in their most formative and vulnerable years.” That seems fair enough, laudable even. So how might they do this “in the player’s best interest” as he says? Well, according to Michael it’s simple: the FAI should just stay away from Northern Ireland-born players until they reach “senior age” – presumably after the age of 21, not, say, when they become adults in the eyes of the law at 18.  A cynic might say that, in the scenario outlined, the players’ ‘best interests’ fit neatly with those of Michael O’Neill and the IFA. Could O’Neill be using concern for young players’ welfare as a veil for his and the IFA’s own self-interest? Surely not…

Perhaps Michael’s appeal doesn’t go far enough. Maybe all dual national players aged 17 to 21 – like Derry City’s struggling Ronan Hale and his brother Rory, for example – should stay away from international football? That would certainly prevent the weight of responsibility from pressing down on their minds during that “crucial formative” stage in their lives, right?

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