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Michael O'Neill: FAI must allow our kids to develop

 

By Steven Beacom

Michael O'Neill entered the press conference room at Windsor Park with intent. In his hand was a typed statement about the controversial issue of players switching allegiance from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland.

In the background for some months now, and clearly where some IFA and FAI officials like to keep it, O'Neill brought the thorny topic front and centre last week in an interview with the Irish Daily Mail.

The Northern Ireland boss claimed that the FAI target Catholic players, declared he wanted a 'gentleman's agreement' with Republic counterpart Martin O'Neill regarding young prospects and stated that for some players who move from north to south it curtails their international careers, though that final point was lost somewhat in the publicity that followed.

At a press conference, the elder O'Neill spoke of his surprise at the younger O'Neill's comments and voiced his disappointment for 'bringing religion into it', though he did point out he would hold discussions with his namesake.

Part Three came yesterday as the Northern Ireland manager responded. Intelligent, articulate and with biting humour, O'Neill is at his best when debating in to and fro style. Yesterday he didn't seem as comfortable reading out line after prepared line which had no doubt been given the fine tooth comb treatment by the IFA.

Watching on from a position in the corner of the room was IFA chief executive Patrick Nelson, who refused to answer any questions after Michael was done.

O'Neill, perplexed and unhappy with the reaction, some of it frosty, to his interview, started by saying: "During a recent interview I was questioned about the issue of eligibility. Contrary to how it has been reported, I did not attack the FAI, I merely responded to the questions I was asked.

"For me, eligibility is not, and should not, be a political issue. Nor should it be a religious issue. For me, eligibility is a football issue."

O'Neill said that he has never disputed the right of northern-born players to choose the IFA or FAI (given to them by Fifa rules following the Good Friday Agreement), adding: "My concerns lie specifically with players aged 17 to 21 in the under-age set-ups.

"I've seen a heavy price paid by too many talented young players; players who have transferred their allegiance to a country that ultimately doesn't rate them, nor play them - creating an international vacuum for the player that signals a wholly different outcome to the career that they may have had.

"My request, therefore, to the FAI and to any other association, is this: that if a young player has chosen to represent Northern Ireland at U17, U19 or U21 level, that he is allowed to develop in these crucial formative years without the responsibility of having to make a decision regarding his international allegiance that is binding for the rest of his career.

"Where I am critical of the FAI is the way in which it currently communicates with the IFA over a player who potentially wishes to make a transfer. There is no dialogue with our coaches from their respective counterparts at the FAI besides an email from the FAI's licensing department requesting information on the player. We appeal for transparency and fairness at under-age level."

On Republic boss O'Neill, who he will go up against on the pitch in a friendly at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin in November, he said: "I have been asking my counterpart at the FAI for a meeting to discuss these issues for more than eight months. I am pleased that he indicated last week that he is now willing to take me up on that.

"It is clear to me that given the examples that Martin used in his press conference that he misunderstood the issues that I wish to address. I am not talking about senior players but those aged 17 to 21 born in Northern Ireland."

One of those may be QPR's Paul Smyth, who has hit the ground running since his move from Linfield.

Martin O'Neill said last week that only if the player indicated a desire to move south would he consider speaking to the winger.

Smyth was not named in Michael O'Neill's squad yesterday for the friendly with South Korea. He is in the Under-21 panel instead but the Northern Ireland boss fully intends to give him a full international cap some time this year.

Goalkeepers: Michael McGovern (Norwich City), Trevor Carson (Motherwell), Conor Hazard (Falkirk).

Defenders: Aaron Hughes (Hearts), Gareth McAuley (West Brom), Jonny Evans (West Brom), Craig Cathcart (Watford), Conor McLaughlin (Millwall), Lee Hodson (Rangers), Paddy McNair (Sunderland), Jamal Lewis (Norwich City).

Midfielders: Steven Davis (Southampton), Niall McGinn (Aberdeen), Oliver Norwood (Fulham), Corry Evans (Blackburn Rovers), Shane Ferguson (Millwall), Stuart Dallas (Leeds United), George Saville (Millwall), Jordan Jones (Kilmarnock).

Forwards: Kyle Lafferty (Hearts), Josh Magennis (Charlton Athletic), Jamie Ward (Cardiff City on loan), Conor Washington (QPR), Liam Boyce (Burton Albion).

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