Darron Gibson swapped the green shirt of Northern Ireland for the green shirt of the Republic of Ireland — and he won’t be the last to do so.
Gibson stroked home two stunning goals for Manchester United in the 2-0 Carling Cup quarter-final win over Spurs at Old Trafford on Tuesday night but, despite being Londonderry-born, is already lost to the Irish FA.
And the man who developed Gibson (22) from promising youngster to Old Trafford starlet is now involved in a constant battle to keep the Football Association of Ireland from poaching his charges.
Paul Kee coached Gibson at Maiden City Soccer, a feeder system for Institute FC, and is now manager of the Northern Ireland Under 17 team.
“There are a number of young players currently making the transition from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, which for me is disappointing,” said Kee who, along with fellow coach John Cunningham, played a major role in the midfielder’s development.
“It’s a choice for the individual but when we at the IFA invest a lot of time and effort to develop young players, and then the FAI come along and take them, it’s a real kick in the teeth.
“That time and effort should be recognised — particularly by the FAI. FIFA should be looking at the situation as well. The FAI shouldn’t just be allowed to come along and take a player for free.
“So one of the main jobs we have is to try and keep kids who are born in Northern Ireland within the IFA system.
“We hope they will feel an affinity to the country.
“We have to basically provide a service from which young players feel they will get something back and hopefully they will have the desire to play for Northern Ireland.
“It’s an issue we have to keep working at though, although if a young player feels a stronger affinity to the Republic of Ireland then that’s the way it is.
“Darron and his family made a choice at the time although the circumstances behind it appear to be that he had a chance to go on trial with United and he was then left out of an IFA team as a result.
“Darron and his parents had to think about his career and they took his talents to the Republic of Ireland,” he said.
Kee, formerly manager of Institute and Limavady United, first encountered Gibson as an 11-year-old.
“We always knew he was a bit special and told his parents that he could go all the way.
“John Cunningham and I have contacts from our time in England and just before Darron joined United, Leicester and Sunderland were showing big interest in him.
“But then United brought Darron and his parents to Manchester, they met Sir Alex Ferguson and that was that. When Manchester United come in it’s difficult to turn them down,” explained Kee, who was as immensely impressed by Gibson’s Carling Cup contribution.
“After his performance against Spurs I saw Darron called ‘the new Lampard’ on one of the internet forums and that’s a pretty good description. Like Frank Lampard, Darron tends to score spectacular goals.
“Darron is a modest, level-headed lad and that’s a huge factor in his success. He has never forgotten his roots. He’s always willing to lend his support to coaching courses in Derry in any way he can.
“He always took on board everything you told him and he was very disciplined,” he said.
“It’s not by chance that you reach the heights Darron has reached — you have to put the work in to go with the talent.
“Ability has never been an issue for Darron. But watching him against Spurs, it was obvious that he has consciously upped his work-rate.
“He was making challenges, tracking back, winning headers and making interceptions. It’s obviously only a matter of time until he’s a United regular.”
And how Northern Ireland would have welcomed a few Gibson goals during the World Cup campaign.
They could have made all the difference.