Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Republic's player poaching to blame for stay-away fans

The Carling Nations Cup boycott is about more than a £30 bus ticket

Barack Obama and the Queen may have been recent visitors to Dublin, but the vast majority of local football supporters are giving it a bye-ball.

Thousands of Northern Ireland fans had been expected to travel to the Aviva stadium for tonight's Carling Nations Cup clash with the Republic, but now it's likely they will number in the low hundreds, with most supporters' clubs boycotting the match.

The impetus for fans to take this action came when the IFA imposed draconian travel restrictions and levied a £30 fee for coach travel to and from the game.

Digging a little deeper, though, it's clear that the boycott reflects growing disillusion among supporters with the arrangements surrounding the Carling Nations Cup - and even Northern Ireland's decision to participate in the first instance.

The Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters' Clubs insists that its problem with the game is not just an expensive bus ticket; it maintains that the IFA did not listen to its advice in the run-up to the competition.

During the planning stages, the amalgamation recommended that only regular supporters should be permitted to attend Carling Cup games. The IFA chose to ignore that opinion and tickets for Northern Ireland's opening game with Scotland went on general sale.

After the match, footage emerged of an unsavoury incident, where a small number of spectators sang sectarian songs inside the Aviva stadium. Many supporters were outraged that their good name had been tarnished and wondered whether lax ticketing arrangements may have contributed.

A number of the most dedicated fans had refused to attend the Scotland game at all. They objected to the IFA's participation in a competition hosted by their near rivals, while the Republic continues to recruit players from Northern Ireland's youth teams.

In the past number of years, the FAI, which governs football in the south, has persuaded Northern Ireland underage players like Darron Gibson, Marc Wilson and Shane Duffy to defect and the Republic recently selected Adam Barton, a Preston-based midfielder who played a friendly match at Windsor Park just months before.

Now the eligibility issue has come to the fore again, after it emerged that the FAI is actively attempting to recruit Shane Ferguson, a regular in the Northern Ireland U21s who broke into Newcastle United's first XI this season. This boycott is much more than an angry reaction to the peculiar arrangements put in place for one match: it is a display of unity and defiance from the fans.

Their team suffers a disadvantage which is unique in world football, with FIFA decreeing that players born in Northern Ireland can play for either Irish squad.

The Republic is clearly determined to exploit this situation by plundering as many promising youngsters as it can from the IFA's youth set-up.

These players invariably come from the nationalist community, with the result that football apartheid is slowly beginning to be established in Ireland.

Northern Ireland supporters are often unjustly maligned, in spite of the huge strides made in recent years to make the terraces fun and inclusive. Every time Neil Lennon is targeted in Scotland, the death-threat which caused him to quit international football is dragged up.

And after abuse from internet Manchester United fans drummed Darron Gibson off Twitter, pundits were quick to blame the Green and White Army - without a scrap of evidence. By observing tonight's boycott, Northern Ireland supporters will register a dignified protest against what they consider a serious injustice. They will also show admirable determination to avoid simmering resentments creating a potential flash-point in Dublin.

Any incidents at a high-tension fixture would be a serious setback for the IFA and it's campaign to see 'Football for All'.

There may be disappointment that Northern Ireland supporters will not attend the first 'Irish derby' since 1999, but the fans' decision to stay at home - and their reasons for doing so - should be respected.

Owen Polley is a Northern Ireland supporter and blogger

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