James McClean has thrown his support behind Oxford United star Mark Sykes' decision to declare for the Republic of Ireland.
oth McClean and Sykes represented Northern Ireland at various youth levels as they developed their careers here before joining clubs in England.
Now former Glenavon midfielder Sykes has indicated that he wants to follow in the footsteps of Stoke City winger McClean, who has won 72 caps for the Republic since his debut in 2012.
The move was a blow to new Northern Ireland boss Ian Baraclough, but even though Sykes was not named in Stephen Kenny's first Republic of Ireland squad, McClean has backed the 23-year-old Belfast-born player.
He said: "You can't help being who you are. It's how you're born, it's in you. I was quite vocal in the past and completely honest - look, I'm an Irishman, I had no intention of ever playing for the North.
"I took advantage of a system that was there, I said that in the past, but my dream - and I'm sure it's Mark's dream as well - as a young Irishman, your dream is to play for Ireland.
"And you can't help being who you are and it's a decision he's made... it's really not a decision he's made, he's born an Irishman and he wants to play for his country.
"He's obviously had a very good year with Oxford as well, so best of luck to him and hopefully he has that path to go the same way mine has.
"You know, I'm a proud Irishman and that's how I was born and like I said as well, there was a system there in the island of Ireland - it's obviously not nice for fans of the North and people associated with the North, but the system's there."
McClean added: “I was still at Derry City when Nigel Worthington named me in the senior squad and, look, it was never my ambition to play for the North and I told him that.
“It was my ambition to play for Ireland as an Irishman and that’s just the way it was and I’m sure that’s the same — I can’t obviously speak to Mark because I don’t know the lad personally — but I’m sure that’s the same for him.”
Londonderry-born McClean (31) is hoping to add to his caps haul in the Nations League against Bulgaria and Finland next week and already has an existing relationship with new national boss Kenny.
He explained: “I know Stephen very well, he gave me my first start in football when he was the manager of Derry City.
“I’m delighted for Stephen, I know this is his dream job, it’s one that he’ll leave no stones unturned in, he will give it everything.
“But to be named in the squad is always a proud moment for me, especially when a new manager comes in as well. It shows that you’re in his thinking, so I’m ready to get to work. And it’s a new era, it’s a new exciting one.
“I’ve said that many times in the past — playing for your country, it’s the biggest achievement and proudest moments you can have in football and that’s always been the case with me.
“But it has been a strange time, it’s been a long time since we last played an international game and the way things are now it’s a crazy time, it’s almost a year from the Denmark game.
“In an ideal world we would have played in the European Championships by now and they would have been over but they still have to come around but it’s something to look forward to.”
There are also other things for McClean to look forward to of course, including the new domestic season with Stoke City, and he’s been impressed by manager Michael O’Neill’s signings.
The former Northern Ireland supremo snapped up Scotland international Steven Fletcher and Morgan Fox from Sheffield Wednesday as well as 33-year-old John Obi Mikel, who won Premier League titles and the Champions League at Chelsea and played at Turkish top-flight side Trabzonspor last season.
McClean added: “I know Fletch obviously from playing with him at Sunderland, I know just how good a player he is, and John Obi Mikel’s career speaks for itself.
“They’re going to bring quality, they’re going to bring experience. The lads have been in now about a week and you can already see they’re two top lads and they’re going to bring a lot on and off the field.
“It’s two great additions, we’ve also had Morgan Fox in as well, so we’re adding not only good players but good people to the team and that can only make for a good dressing room and hopefully that transcends onto the pitch.
“Last season was a very frustrating one, a very difficult one from the outset.
“We never really pulled away from the bottom of the table all season so as you can imagine it was pretty stressful, but we got there in the end, we finished the season strongly.
“We’ve had a short break and we’re back in now, we want to obviously right the wrongs of last season and our aim is to challenge at the other end of the table rather than at the bottom where we have been the last two seasons.
“The fundamentals are in place now. Like I say, we finished the season strongly, so we’re going to push on now and get off to a better start than we have in the last two seasons.”