Belfast Telegraph

Is baggage of Derrymen playing for Northern Ireland becoming thing of past?

 

By Orla Bannon

When the US Navy arrived in Londonderry during World War II and turned it into their first naval base in Europe, marines were issued with a phrasebook to help them deal with the peculiarities of the local parlance.

Derry 'wans' have always taken pride in being different and it's a place that continues to be different because Derry is a unique city - especially when it comes to football.

Take the week that's in it. Three of the Maiden City's prodigal sons, James McClean, Shane Duffy and Martin O'Neill, played leading roles in helping the Republic of Ireland secure a place in the World Cup play-offs while Shane Ferguson and Danny Lafferty, also of that parish, were doing the same thing with Northern Ireland.

Fifa's unjust seeding system has at least saved us the unpalatable prospect of the two 'Irelands' being drawn against each other in the play-offs.

Just imagine it - the Republic's northern players 'taking a knee' at Windsor Park during God Save The Queen. It would have been a new low, even by our standards.

We live on an island where depending on your beliefs and allegiances, you can decide which country you play for. But it's in Derry where that curious paradox comes alive because unlike other nationalist cities like Armagh and Newry, Derry has a senior football team.

The place is football-mad. Many young footballers aspire only to play for the Boys in Green, the country they identify with, and with Derry City also operating in the League of Ireland, they are brought to the attention of scouts and managers in that jurisdiction.

Sometimes the Irish Football Association's (IFA) underage system is used to help get them there - McClean played seven times for the Northern Ireland U-21s before switching allegiances in 2011. He specifically requested that the FAI be contacted about his availability when he was negotiating a move to Sunderland. Then chairman Niall Quinn was part of that process.

"The North has lost out, no doubt about it," says Derry City legend Liam Coyle, who earned one cap for Northern Ireland.

"It's all changed now. In my day we had no choice, the likes of Felix Healy, Terry Harkin and myself, but many young nationalists now are going to opt for the Republic.

"The likes of James (McClean) has strong beliefs and felt he couldn't play for Northern Ireland at senior level.

"I had no problems playing for Northern Ireland. I've always got stick off both sides of the community anyway.

"It comes down to personal choice at the end of the day and some lads just want to play international football.

"They don't really mind what jersey they're in."

The largest Republic of Ireland supporters' club outside of London is based not in Dublin, Cork or Limerick, but in Derry.

It currently boasts more than 450 members and with the city having such strong ties to the current international team, interest has never been higher, so much so that membership is closed for the time being.

"We're riding on the crest of a wave up here, McClean can do no wrong and Duffy is growing more and more into that team, and then Martin's there as well," says club chairman James Barr.

"We had Shane's family staying with us in the hotel in Dublin before the Moldova match last week and the lads are appreciative of the support from back home.

"When James comes home to the Creggan his father says he often spends an hour or two signing autographs for the kids out on the street.

"Derry people like to see their own people doing well. They're not begrudgers - they will back you 100%."

McClean and Northern Ireland's Lafferty grew up on the same streets in Creggan, are good friends, yet play for different countries, a situation facilitated by Fifa's ruling linking nationality to international eligibility.

The IFA challenged it and failed in 2010, but they aren't giving up the fight and are investing in Derry like never before.

Coaches go around to schools encouraging young players to play for the country of their birth.

Former Northern Ireland international Jim Magilton is the IFA's elite performance director.

"People want to put up obstacles but all we're doing is selecting players if they are good enough and usually they are delighted," he says.

"I selected four Derry City lads for the U-21s when I was in charge and earlier this week Ben Doherty played for the U-21s against Estonia. There's no issue.

"Given the fantastic run of form the national team is in and the fantastic job Michael O'Neill is doing, why wouldn't players want to be part of a squad that is challenging to reach major competitions?"

For many nationalists in Derry and elsewhere, the geographical location of Windsor Park and the national anthem may be stumbling blocks to a fully-integrated Northern Ireland team but plenty of Derrymen have represented Northern Ireland over the years, from John O'Neill, Paul Ramsey, and Gary Fleming to more recently Paddy McCourt, and now Shane Ferguson and Danny Lafferty.

Derry City's Aaron McEneff and his highly-rated younger brother Jordan - who is with Arsenal - have gone in the opposition direction but Derry men playing for the Green and White Army no longer carries the baggage it once did.

"You see schoolboys all the time now 11, 12 years of age wearing Northern Ireland tracksuits in the Bogside," says Barr. "It is strange. Something we're not used to but it's OK.

"There's not the same bad blood and bitterness. People like to see the North doing well and tune in to see how the Derry lads are doing.

"You don't support Northern Ireland exactly and you don't want to go to Windsor Park but you think, 'fair play, they're getting a career out of it' and want them to do well."

Regardless of which country they choose in the end, players from Derry will continue to play a meaningful role in the success of both teams.

And as the marines' handbook might say, the locals are 'lured stiff' (delighted) about that.

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