Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Pied piper Martin O'Neill's move will hurt Irish Football Association

Double act: Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill have the X-factor and will make playing for the Republic appealing
Double act: Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill have the X-factor and will make playing for the Republic appealing
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill

It was interesting listening to Michael O'Neill talk about Martin O'Neill at Irish FA headquarters earlier this week.

Not least because some in the IFA wanted Martin to become the Northern Ireland manager instead of Michael at the end of 2011, when Nigel Worthington jumped before he was pushed.

At the time Martin was out of work and, with Northern Ireland needing a new boss, there was hope among many fans that destiny was about to be fulfilled.

It was the same hope that had been swirling around minds ever since he started shining as a boss at Wycombe Wanderers.

Celebrated as the famous captain of the Northern Ireland side in the 1982 World Cup finals and admired for his managerial deeds at Leicester, Celtic and Aston Villa, he's been a wanted man in this country for almost two decades, but the timing never seemed to be right.

Had it been, there is no guarantee that a financial package could have been agreed.

And while we'd prefer not to think this, maybe Martin never wanted the job in the first place.

Sometimes for all concerned not knowing is best.

Anyway a few weeks after Worthington's exit, word came from O'Neill that he was flattered to be linked with the post but was planning on returning to club management.

That he did, with Sunderland, saving the Black Cats from relegation in his first season and then being sacked in his second following a poor run of results that had left them struggling again.

In the meantime another M O'Neill took charge of Northern Ireland with the realisation that Martin guiding the country of his birth was no longer a possibility.

In taking charge of the Republic of Ireland, however, the Kilrea man will now play a key role in Northern Ireland's footballing future.

With a two year IFA contract extension tucked away in his pocket, on Tuesday Michael O'Neill (pictured) spoke eloquently about his relationship with his 61-year-old namesake.

He also talked about the impact Martin O'Neill would have on the thorny issue of the FAI selecting gifted young Northern Ireland born and bred players like Darron Gibson, James McClean and Marc Wilson, many of whom came through the IFA ranks.

Of course the controversial Fifa ruling, which allows players from Ireland to declare for either nation, works both ways, but in this North v South battle, the latter is winning hands down.

The simplistic view is that more and more lads from a Catholic background are choosing the Republic because that was their team growing up and they feel more of a pull to play at home in Dublin rather than Belfast.

Effectively it makes the already limited choice for a Northern Ireland boss even more limited.

To their credit, though probably a little late in the day, the IFA are putting structures in place trying to keep all races, creeds and colours content within their ranks, from schoolboy international to full international.

In June, Jim Magilton became the IFA's Elite Performance Director and, in tandem with other coaches, he will attempt to work with the country's talented kids in mind and body so that they become good enough and strong enough to make it professionally across the water.

By doing so it is hoped players will show loyalty, stick with Northern Ireland and not turn their backs on the system that made their dreams come true.

Some of course will crave playing at Windsor Park in an attempt to re-create the glory nights of beating England, Spain, Sweden and the rest.

Not all though.

And that's why Martin O'Neill's appointment as Republic of Ireland manager and that of Roy Keane as his assistant is worrying news for Northern Ireland.

Michael O'Neill says Martin "won't be banging down doors in Belfast and Derry to get players" which is true, but the thing is he won't have to because they will come to him and Keane.

The O'Neill/Keane double act will be like a modern day version of The Pied Piper. Kids will flock to hear their tune and follow them religiously because they are two of the most fascinating and charismatic figures in football and, together with the Republic, will forever be in the spotlight.

O'Neill was a fine player, Keane a magnificent one, O'Neill generally a successful manager, Keane a moody one and both are compelling to watch as pundits on television.

They have got the X-Factor and will make it even more appealing for young Catholics, already Republic supporters, to opt for South over North.

Imagine if under them the Republic become a decent side again, who not only qualify for major tournaments but don't embarrass themselves when they get there.

Future generations, including kids with no real allegiance, will see that on telly and think that's the team on this island to play for. Protestant players might fancy a bit of big time, high profile football too.

The only way for Northern Ireland to compete is for our boys to start winning matches on a regular basis and qualify for those same major tournaments. Given results in the last World Cup campaign, Michael O'Neill and his players have vast improvements to make on that score.

There may be a romantic notion that because Martin's from Northern Ireland, he won't take 'our' players but if they come banging at his door, he won't turn them away. As the younger O'Neill stated, the new Republic boss will do what's best for him and his new team.

And why wouldn't he? The FAI are paying him and Keane handsomely for their experience and expertise.

Martin O'Neill plans to deliver for the Republic. Unfortunately that will be to the detriment of the country he once led with distinction.

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