Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Northern Ireland manager O'Neill slams Football Association of Ireland in eligibility row

Michael O'Neill has criticised the Football Association of Ireland
Michael O'Neill has criticised the Football Association of Ireland

Michael O'Neill has taken a swipe at the Football Association of Ireland and questioned their motives in pursuing Northern Ireland-born players.

And the Northern Ireland manager believes that the those who run the game in the Republic of Ireland don't act morally when it comes to exploiting a Fifa loophole that allows them to select any player born on the island of Ireland.

The eligibility ruling has been a thorny issue for almost a decade, with the Irish FA being the victims of a one-way system that leaves every player available to O'Neill vulnerable to being poached by the Dublin vultures.

Three Northern Ireland-born Premier League players have been lost to the Republic, Everton midfielder Darron Gibson and Sunderland's James McClean – both from Londonderry – and County Armagh native Marc Wilson all chose a different shade of green.

There are also fears over another potential Premier League star. Liverpool's Ryan McLaughlin has starred for Northern Ireland at underage level, but he hasn't yet won a senior cap in a competitive game and until that happens only then will the Republic of Ireland finally have to give up on a player that they have coveted since his schoolboy days.

While he didn't personally criticise Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni, O'Neill did make reference to the treatment of Wilson, McClean and Gibson, who haven't always been happy in the Italian's camp.

Only recently has Wilson made a competitive international appearance, while both McClean and Gibson hit out at their manager after spending virtually all of the Euro 2012 finals on the bench – Gibson hasn't played international football since.

"Marc Wilson had his problems, James McClean has had his problems, Darron Gibson has certainly not played anywhere near as much for the Republic of Ireland as he would have done for Northern Ireland. I don't think there's any doubt about that," said O'Neill.

Since his appointment as Northern Ireland boss 15 months ago O'Neill has scoured the UK and beyond in search of players with a Northern Ireland bloodline that might bolster his squad.

He acts very secretively – he is forced to – because with Fifa declaring open season in Northern Ireland any player he comes up can be snatched away.

O'Neill's criticism of the FAI is a major deviation from the Irish FA's normally tepid stance. The party line is that the decision to switch international allegiance is a personal one and also one that has to be respected.

That is usually followed by a vow to do everything possible to keep Northern Ireland players within the IFA set up by making them feel wanted.

It hasn't always worked though. Underage players like Daniel Kearns and Paul George have also made the switch – although it is understood that recent moves have been made to persuade George to reverse his decision to declare for the Republic of Ireland.

The IFA challenged Kearns' switch at the Court of Arbitration for Sport three years ago in a test case that they hoped would block the FAI selecting northern-born players forever.

The court found in favour of the current Fifa regulations, meaning the door remains open, but O'Neill is warning young players to take their time before making the switch, as once the process starts it can't be reversed.

"Daniel Kearns, I feel a bit sorry for," said O'Neill.

"He was, possibly, a young lad that was put in a position that maybe the association shouldn't have put him in.

"As a player at 17 or 19, to change your allegiance without any potential promise of a full international career, I think there's a moral issue there.

"I don't think that's to the benefit of a player's career. And I think there is a moral aspect, as an association, to make sure that the interest is genuine."

O'Neill has had some success though.

Newcastle's Shane Ferguson never played under former boss Nigel Worthington, meaning he was up for grabs, until O'Neill capped him straight away and then tied him to Northern Ireland when he faced Luxembourg in a World Cup qualifier in September last year.

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