Belfast Telegraph

I did not attack the FAI: Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill's statement on eligibility row in full

Watch and read the statement in full here

By Gareth Hanna

Michael O'Neill has said that he did not attack the FAI over the issue of player eligibility but has outlined his issues with the association.

O'Neill was quoted by the Irish Daily Mail rapping the FAI for targeting players from a nationalist background to switch allegiances to play for the Republic of Ireland.

"The FAI only ever approach one type of player: Catholic," he said.

Republic boss Martin O'Neill responded to voice his disappointment at the comments and now, in his press conference to announce the Northern Ireland squad that will face South Korea in an international friendly, Michael has issued a lengthy statement on the situation.

O'Neill was at pains to stress his belief that "eligibility is a football issue" rather than a poticial or a religious one. He appealed to the Republic of Ireland and any other nation to steer clear of discussing a switch in international allegiance with NI's underage players.

O'Neill said that the players should be allowed to progress to senior level without the "responsibility of having to make a decision regarding his international allegiance that is binding for the rest of his career".

In his original comments, the Northern Ireland manager named Partick Thistle defender Daniel Devine as an example of a player who made a young decision to switch allegiance from NI to RoI but has gone on to be uncapped at senior level. O'Neill said he could name 10 players in a similar position.

The NI manager said that his issues with the Football Association of Ireland surround a lack of communication between Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland coaches when a player wishes to switch allegiance. He also said that he had been requesting a meeting with the RoI manager for "more than eight months" and welcomed Martin O'Neill's openness to a discussion of the issue.

In full: Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill's statement on eligibility issue

LIVE: Michael O'Neill announces his squad to face South Korea. ⚽ MON on eligibility issue ➡...

Posted by Belfast Telegraph Sport on Monday, March 12, 2018

"Before I talk about the squad, I'd like to make a statement addressing some of the issues that have been reported in the media recently around player eligibility," he began.

"This will be the last time that I discuss this issue in public as my views are continually misrepresented by sections of the media. I will not be taking any questions other than in relation to the upcoming game against South Korea.

"During a recent interview, I was questioned about the issue of eligibility. Contrary to how it was reported, I did not attack the FAI - I merely responded to the questions I was asked.

"For me, eligibility is not and should not be a political issue, nor should it be a religious issue. For me, eligibility is a football issue.

"Recent media reports have sparked much opinion, particularly around the rights of players born in Northern Ireland to be free to choose for whom they wish to play. I have never disputed that right. Nor have I ever been critical of a player for exercising that right.

"The FAI correctly states it has broken no rules in approaching young Northern Ireland players.

"My concerns lie specifically with players aged 17 to 21 in the underage set-ups.

"I've seen a heavy price paid by too many talented young players - players who have transferred their allegiance to a country that ultimately doesn't rate them nor play them, creating an international vacuum for the player that signals a wholly different outcome to the career that they might have had.

"My request, therefore, to the FAI and to any other association is that: that if a young player has chosen to represent Northern Ireland at Under 17, Under 19 or Under 21 level, that he is allowed to develop in these crucial formative years without the responsibility of having to make a decision regarding his international allegiance that is binding for the rest of his career. My request extends to any country, not just the Republic of Ireland.

"Where I am critical of the FAI is the way in which it currently communicates with the IFA over a player who potentially wishes to make a transfer. There is no dialogue with our coaches from their respective counterparts at the FAI besides an email from the FAI's licensing department, requesting information on the player.

"The Irish FA invests thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of pounds in players in our Club NI programme. While it is a player's right to choose to play for the Republic of Ireland at underage level, such a decision means that another young player has missed out on the opportunity to be part of our elite performance pathway and another player in the FAI's system will miss out on selection.

"I have been asking my counterpart at the FAI for a meeting to discuss these issues for more than eight months. I am pleased that he has indicated last week that he is now willing to take me up on that.

"It is clear to me that given the examples Martin (O'Neill - Republic of Ireland manager) used in his press conference, that he has misunderstood the issues that I wish to address. I am not talking about senior players, but those aged 17 to 21 born in Northern Ireland.

"To reiterate, elibility is a football issue. We and the FAI have a responsibility to invest in and nurture talent on both sides of the border. With that comes a duty and an obligation to protect those young talents in their most formative and vulnerable years.

"We appeal for transparency and fairness at underage level. We respect that young players who represent Northern Ireland at underage level have the right to choose to play for the Republic of Ireland. What we are asking for is that such a significant decision, one that could affect their entire career, is neither influenced nor made until that player reaches senior age and is made at a time which is in the player's best interest."

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