Football must be the winner when Northern Ireland faces Republic: McIlroy
Northern Ireland great Sammy McIlroy insists politics must be kicked into touch when Michael O'Neill's men clash with Martin O'Neill's Republic of Ireland in a high-profile friendly later this year.
The Irish FA yesterday announced Northern Ireland will tackle their neighbours for the first time in seven years on Thursday, November 15 at the Aviva Stadium in a warm-up match for the final Nations League game against Austria.
McIlroy, who captained and managed his country, is confident all the focus will be on the football rather than any unsavoury incidents - including sectarian chanting - which have marred games in the past between the two countries.
"We should be talking only about football," said McIlroy last night. "It's a football match and it'll be a good test for both sides, simple as that.
"I'm sure Michael wants competition, and at the end of the day the Republic will be a very good test for Northern Ireland."
Northern Ireland haven't played the Republic in a competitive fixture since a European Championship qualifying draw in 1995 but they did win a friendly 1-0 in 1999 in aid of the Omagh Bomb appeal and an under-strength side lost heavily 5-0 in 2011 during the ill-fated Carling Nations Cup, which involved all the Celtic nations.
This will be the 11th clash between the cross-border rivals with Northern Ireland aiming for just their third win over the Republic.
McIlroy expects a hugely exciting affair as both teams will be fine-tuning personnel and tactics ahead of their respective final Nations League games.
Former Manchester United midfielder McIlroy added: "This is going to be a great test for both countries with big games coming up just a few days later."
Former Northern Ireland ace McIlroy faced the Republic of Ireland twice as a player in the late 1970s, and played in the same Northern Ireland side as current Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill in a 1-0 European Championship qualifier victory at Windsor Park in November 1979.
McIlroy added: “We’ve played the Republic in competition before, so is there a problem with that? No.
“It’s great that there will be a game between the two sides. It’s a competitive friendly and I’m sure Michael O’Neill will want it to be a competitive game no matter who it’s against.
“The Republic of Ireland, especially under Martin O’Neill, were unlucky not to qualify for the World Cup, so it’ll be a good test for the two sides,” he concluded.
Another former Northern Ireland star, midfielder Stuart Elliott, concurred with McIlroy’s view that the game should only be about the football.
The former Glentoran and Hull City ace also believes it’ll be a fantastic atmosphere in the Aviva Stadium when the two nations collide in November.
“You see rugby lead the way (in north-south relations), so I hope they’ll focus completely on the football on the day, and I think it’ll be great for both countries,” Elliott commented.
“I think it’s absolutely brilliant news. I think it’s going to be a great game for the supporters and everyone involved, and there’s going to be a fantastic atmosphere in the Aviva Stadium.
“We’re now living in a different era and it’ll be very good for both teams from the north and south to be involved. The supporters should enjoy it.”