Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough has spoken out about the system that allowed Mark Sykes to join senior international squads before switching his allegiance to another nation.
The Oxford United notified the new senior boss of his decision to declare for the Republic of Ireland over the weekend - a move that could bizarrely see Sykes line-out against Northern Ireland in the Euro 2020 play-off final at Windsor Park come November.
It came as something of a bolt from the blue, after the 23-year-old starred for Northern Ireland Under 21s and was even involved in senior squads, most recently the panel for the originally scheduled play-offs in March, which would later be postponed.
In April, he told the Belfast Telegraph that he would 'always be ready' to step in if given the nod to win his senior cap but has since had a change of heart.
He was first called into the senior squad in March 2019 for the Euro qualifiers against Estonia and Belarus.
He was then named on the bench for the qualifier in Belarus in June. Had he been brought onto the pitch that evening, he would have been tied in to Northern Ireland.
As he remained on the bench, he is still free to switch under FIFA regulations.
For new boss Baraclough, who picked Sykes as an integral member of his Under 21 panel before stepping up to the top job, the issue is with the system that allows a player to go so far before declaring for another nation.
“The system is there and it’s not a system we’re particularly pleased with but I want players who want to play for Northern Ireland and it’s very difficult for a young player to have to deal with decisions like that," said the boss.
“For us as an association, we bring players through, we develop them from a young age and we’ve got a really good system in place now where young players are allowed to thrive.
“For me personally, I’m very, very disappointed that he’s come through the system, he’s been in three squads and for that amount of time another young player may have had the opportunity to come through the system and he may have just taken that opportunity away."
Baraclough said he had 'respect' for Sykes' courage in calling the manager himself to explain his decision and confirmed he had tried to encourage the former Glenavon midfielder to give further consideration to the move but is now satisfied that his mind has been made up.
“It’s a disappointment for me and for everyone within the association," Baraclough said.
"It's something that took me very much by surprise. Mark’s a player that we’ve worked long and hard with, not just me but coaches and managers before that. He’s one that we expected to carry on in his pathway. We’ve got to respect his wishes. We’re massively disappointed."
Sykes' surprising decision has opened the door, instead, for his new Oxford United team-mate Joel Cooper to come into the squad for next month's UEFA Nations League games against Romania and Norway.
“Joel was in my first under 21 squad," said Baraclough. "I know having spoken to him that he was delighted to receive a call from me to congratulate him on his move to Oxford. I know from having spoken to the coaching staff at Oxford that he’s hit the ground running there and impressed them immensely – even better than the player they thought they were signing.
“He has turned up in great shape, scored over the weekend in friendlies. He was made up when I called him last night. He was delighted. He’s a character. Many of the other players know him after travelling with the group to the last Euros. He has the character and personality and he certainly has the ability to go and hold his own in this squad. I’m looking forward to getting to work with him. I think it’s (an opportunity) he will grasp with both hands.”
Baraclough is ultimately gearing his squad up for the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final against Bosnia & Herzegovinia in Zenica on October 8, with that potential home final against either Slovakia or the Republic of Ireland following on November 12.