Belfast Telegraph

Martin O'Neill may back agreement with Northern Ireland but FAI could scupper any deal: Hamilton

By Steven Beacom

Former Northern Ireland great Billy Hamilton believes his old international team-mate Martin O'Neill may be open to a gentleman's agreement suggested by Michael O'Neill over the FAI's recruitment of northern-born players.

Hamilton, however, is quick to add that he doubts if the FAI would go along with the idea.

After a period of quiet on the topic, the thorny subject of Northern Irish footballers playing for the Republic of Ireland came into sharp focus again this week when Michael O'Neill did a hard-hitting interview with the Irish Daily Mail.

The Northern Ireland manager was critical of the FAI's recruitment policy of players born in the north, claiming that they targeted Catholics.

He added that he wanted to come to a gentleman's agreement with Republic counterpart Martin O'Neill 'whereby if a young boy has represented Northern Ireland at aged 17 to 21 the FAI don't ask him to change'.

Ex-Shamrock Rovers boss O'Neill is frustrated by the number of players who come through the youth ranks with the IFA and end up declaring for the Republic with whom they may play senior international football or not.

The Fifa rule on this, drawn up after the Good Friday Agreement, allows anyone born in the North to go South, with the FAI consistently stating they have not broken any rules in the recruitment of players.

It is understood that following Michael O'Neill's comments this week, he has held talks with Martin O'Neill.

They have a good relationship and want to maintain it knowing a Dublin friendly between their sides is on the way in November.

The latter will face the media today when he names his Republic squad for a friendly in Turkey later this month. In the past, the former Celtic and Leicester manager has tended to steer clear of what is a controversial subject but he is certain to be asked about the views of his namesake.

O'Neill, of course, captained Northern Ireland in the 1982 World Cup finals.

Hamilton, another hero of that tournament, believes his old team-mate would be open to the offer of a gentleman's agreement.

"I've known Martin a long time and he is an intelligent man. I think he may be open to coming to an agreement but I'm not sure the FAI would feel the same way," said Hamilton.

"Put it this way, I would have more faith in Martin looking at it than the FAI.

"They will ask why would we enter into any agreement? Personally I would be in favour of the gentleman's agreement suggested by Michael."

The Northern Ireland manager has faced criticism in certain quarters for airing his opinion with Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney last night stating that O'Neill's comments were 'divisive and unnecessary'.

He added that the IFA should publicly refute the comments.

Both the IFA and FAI have kept silent to date. Hamilton, though, feels O'Neill was right to speak out.

He said: "I believe Michael was right to speak about this issue because with the way the Fifa rules are it seems unfair to Northern Ireland.

"We bring through kids but at 16 or 17 they seem to disappear from the IFA and go to the FAI. It seems strange we nurture these players and give them a chance and they move elsewhere.

"Whatever you say on this issue it could be misconstrued, but to me if you have been brought through the ranks of one Association you should not be allowed to transfer to another Association when you are older.

"I can understand the political nature of it and someone from a nationalist area wanting to play for the Republic of Ireland, but in football terms where Northern Ireland are concerned players are being lost to another country which doesn't seem fair.

"I've heard the argument that some players want to divorce themselves from Windsor Park but Windsor Park is a much changed place than it was perhaps 20 years ago.

"I don't feel it is a hostile place for Catholics.

"Also, I don't see Fifa touching this issue again because they know it is a political hot potato, so the only way forward for Northern Ireland would be to have the gentleman's agreement as Michael has suggested."

Belfast Telegraph

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