Belfast Telegraph

Fight on to secure footballers’ loyalty to Northern Ireland

By Graham Luney

Now that players who hold an Irish passport in Northern Ireland can choose to play for the Republic, the fight is on to see them pledge loyalty to the country of their birth.

The Irish Football Association knows Northern Ireland — a small country with a tiny pool of talent to select from — can’t afford to stand by and watch promising young talent move south.

After taking the eligibility fight to Fifa and losing, the IFA have had to acknowledge that they’ve lost the war but there will be many more battles in the future.

Gerry Armstrong, Northern Ireland’s 1982 World Cup hero, held talks with IFA chiefs yesterday on his new role as ‘elite player mentor’ and the appointment should be rubberstamped today.

The former Tottenham striker, who earned 63 caps for his country, is hungry to stop the rising number of defections and he even hopes to bring James McClean back into the Northern Ireland set-up.

The Sunderland new boy said it was his dream to play for the Republic and his withdrawal from the squad to face the Faroe Islands at Windsor Park tonight catapulted the eligibility issue to the top of the news agenda at a time when Northern Ireland face a win or bust moment in their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.

McClean isn’t the first player to snub Northern Ireland and he won’t be the last but Armstrong accepts that the player exodus and the reasons for it must be addressed.

“If Northern Ireland is going to improve in the future we are going to need these young players playing for us and wanting to play for us,” said Armstrong.

“We are a very small country and we cannot afford to let these things continue to happen.

“If a player wants to play for the Republic of Ireland then that is his view and he’s entitled to it but we need to cast the net wide and make sure players feel a sense of belonging with Northern Ireland.

“Players have gone to the Republic and come back to Northern Ireland because they didn’t like it.

“I think we need to do something before it’s too late and we must have as many players as possible keen to represent Northern Ireland.

“Perhaps peer pressure is influencing them but we need to talk to them, understand why they are thinking the way they are and encourage them that they can wear the Northern Ireland shirt with pride.

“I know James (McClean) has said he wants to play for the Republic but there is time yet to bring him back in and change his mind. It’s not too late to welcome him back on board. I’m not giving up on him.”

Armstrong will use a network of former Northern Ireland internationals around the world to keep him informed of players who can become Windsor Park heroes.

“It’s going to be an enlightening time for all of us and we are going to learn more and more over the next three to six months,” added Armstrong.

“Guys like Sammy McIlroy, Steve Morrow, Jimmy Nicholl, Pat Jennings and Pat Rice have agreed to help us improve the squad.”

Belfast Telegraph


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