I know how Republic of Ireland feel over Declan Rice exit, insists Northern Ireland boss
Michael O'Neill says he feels the Republic of Ireland's pain after West Ham midfielder Declan Rice pledged his international future to England.
The 20-year-old earned three senior Republic caps in friendly fixtures, having played for his grandparents' country since Under-16 level. After taking some time to decide his future, the Londoner switched his allegiance to England, and it's a scenario which O'Neill can empathise with as players from Northern Ireland can choose to play for the Republic provided they haven't played in a competitive game for the Green and White Army.
"The (Fifa eligibility) rule is the rule and we are victims of that probably more than anyone," said the Northern Ireland boss after naming his squad for the opening Euro 2020 qualifiers against Estonia and Belarus this month.
"International football has become very competitive in terms of player recruitment. England don't have the numbers in the Premier League they once had so they are aggressive around younger players playing at senior level and in the younger age groups.
"Young players have come back to England at Under-19 level and that's the nature of it. I still think the rules are slightly outdated. Young players shouldn't be pushed into a decision that is binding at that stage in their career but all we can do is show our young players through the Club NI programme that the opportunity to play senior football with Northern Ireland can come very quickly.
"It's a difficult decision, you invest time in the players but they don't technically belong to you unless you see them on the pitch in a competitive game."
O’Neill added: “It will rumble on and continue. With each case, people will raise issues about it, but I don’t see any imminent change to the rule.”
Rice — ironically — will be named the Republic’s Young Player of the Year at Sunday’s FAI International Awards.
Midfielder Oliver Norwood has been omitted from the squad for “personal reasons” while strikers Will Grigg and Conor Washington return to the panel.
Uncapped Arsenal youngster Daniel Ballard is given a first call-up and O’Neill is hoping the promising 19-year-old can become a regular fixture in the squad.
“He’s a young centre-back who was with our Under-19s last year with Stephen Frail and did very well,” said O’Neill.
“We have promoted him to the Under-21 squad and he’s playing regularly for Arsenal at Under-23 level. We are bringing him in for the experience but it’s also an indication of where we are as Gareth (McAuley) and Aaron (Hughes) aren’t going to go on forever.
“Neither are playing regularly and it’s important to bring Daniel in because in the next 12 to 18 months he has the potential to be a regular fixture in the squad.
“He’s young and he’s raw but competitive. He likes to attack the ball, he’s a good defender and he’s shown good character. Arsenal were a bit undecided about him 12 months ago but they decided to keep him and he’s done well in that period.
“He has been very good in our Under-19 ranks and, like Paul Smyth, Jordan Thompson and Gavin Whyte, we believe in promoting players and seeing them grow with us in a developing squad. You have to hope it helps their club careers because if that’s going in the right direction it makes life easier for us in terms of selection.”
Ballard, who has played four times for the Under-21 side, was born in Stevenage but qualifies as his mother is from Northern Ireland. He played in the famous 2-1 win in Spain and even hit the headlines with a last-minute winning goal in Iceland.
Ballard said: “We’ve had some really good results, especially when I made my debut against Spain, and Ian (Baraclough) has been a massive help. He makes sure the team is together all the time, you feel that team chemistry. Scoring a late winner against Iceland was also special.
“I’ve been at Arsenal for over 10 years and with Under-23 coach Freddie Ljungberg he looks at the game in a unique way. He often uses Pep Guardiola’s style with us, and it can be risky, but the football is good and we’ve had good results.
“I would describe myself as a Jonny Evans or Gareth McAuley, I look up to these players and you want to wear the shirt with pride and dream of representing your country at senior level. I’ll work hard until the dream comes true.”
Estonia travel to Belfast for the first Group C match on Thursday, March 21 and Belarus visit Windsor Park three days later. O’Neill stressed the importance of making a fast start.
“We need to get off to a good start,” he added. “With the games home and away against Estonia and Belarus up first they are difficult games but we must turn this group into a group of three and we can only do that by maximising the points against our first two opponents.
“The last two campaigns we have played 20 games in qualification, won 12, drawn four and lost four, two of which were to Germany. That’s a very good record, finishing first and second in the group.
“They have to look at that for belief.”