Belfast Telegraph

Republic don't coerce Northern Ireland players into switching sides, says Martin O'Neill

By Daniel McDonnell

Martin O'Neill has admitted he can understand Northern Ireland frustration with the rules that allow players born north of the border to declare for the Republic of Ireland.

But he has effectively ruled out a gentleman’s agreement with Michael O’Neill that would stop the FAI from pursuing players that have already been capped at underage level by Northern Ireland.

The Ulsterman was surprised and disappointed that Northern Ireland boss O’Neill spoke out about the FAI’s recruitment of players from the nationalist community and called him to voice his unhappiness as they had planned a private discussion on the matter.

He was aggrieved that the former Shamrock Rovers boss publicly raised the issue of religion and asked him to explain his comments — especially as the Republic of Ireland boss insisted he has not actively competed with his namesake for any player.

The FAI have taken individuals who had been involved in the Northern Ireland underage set-up, but their senior manager says they acted within the rules and ultimately it came down to the player’s personal preference.

And he doesn’t see how a gentleman’s agreement between the two senior managers could function when it’s really a matter for the associations.

Fifa rules state that any player born in Northern Ireland can play for the Republic, and the IFA have unsuccessfully fought this in the past.

The 65-year-old former Northern Ireland captain did not have that option in his day.

“I can’t see how that can be of any benefit to Northern Ireland,” he said, addressing the situation at a Dublin press conference yesterday to name his squad for an upcoming friendly with Turkey.

“They are the rules. Unfortunately I didn’t make them.

“They’ve changed since I was playing. I think it’s something that needs to be worked out by the associations. Whatever Michael says and I say, we are managers at this time but we’re somewhat transient.

“It’s worth having a conversation about, and Michael mentioned this to me and we were hoping to sit down and have a little discussion. So it was a disappointment for me to hear that Michael had gone on record and mentioned it.

“This point about a religion thing being brought up... and if Michael was actually alluding to my time (as Republic manager), I’m sorry, it’s rather distorted and just not true. The choice of words was the problem.

“I’ve not taken one player, which he has admitted. Not one player. I’m not in control of everything. The most important thing for me is the senior side.

“In terms of senior football, he had to admit the other day in the conversation that I’ve never taken a player from him.

“I didn’t realise until I was looking it up that Alex Bruce was the one who’d gone in the opposite direction during my time.”

The Republic have been linked with Belfast-born QPR winger Paul Smyth, who has already spent time with the Northern Ireland side.

The former Linfield player was taken as a non-playing squad member to Euro 2016 in France.

Martin O’Neill was impressed when he watched him in Championship action recently but stressed that he would not be instigating any approach.

He would talk to the player if he came to him, and reiterated that the final call should be made by the individual.

“If the player thinks, ‘I am happy with what Michael has done for me’ I would totally abide by that,” he said.

“Why would I not want to speak to him (if an approach was made from Smyth’s side)? But I am not imagining that’s the case. Michael has done a lot of work with him.

“The player has the choice. I think that is very important and something that’s been overlooked in this. They’re not being coerced into doing this.

“I’ve mentioned this to the underage coaches. Don’t be coercing someone but they won’t be anyway. And they haven’t been.

“I think that’s been the case. I cannot say much more. We have lost players ourselves to England. They are the rules.

“I met him (Michael O’Neill) at a game there recently and we had a very convivial conversation. He never mentioned these particular points. I wish he had done, privately.”

O’Neill has, meanwhile, hinted that a summer farewell is on the cards for a clutch of senior Republic players who have yet to confirm their long-term intentions.

The trip to face Turkey on March 23 is about saying hello to a variety of new faces with eight uncapped players in the 30-man provisional squad.

Wes Hoolahan and Daryl Murphy have already retired from service, while John O’Shea and Glenn Whelan are expected to follow suit.

Jon Walters is injured at the moment and his intentions are unclear. Aiden McGeady is not part of the Turkey panel.

O’Neill refused to discuss specific cases, and instead indicated he had something in mind. “There’s something I would like to announce later on, but not today,” he said.

When asked if the USA’s visit to Dublin on June 2 could function as a send-off for some of his old guard, O’Neill replied: “I will have a certain thought about that. I’ll have to talk to some players.”

For now, the mind is on Turkey. In addition to Declan Rice, there are first calls for Blackburn duo Darragh Lenihan and Derrick Williams, Manchester United goalkeeper Kieran O’Hara and Sheffield United defender Enda Stevens.

Rice and O’Hara have trained with the group before and will come back from Antalya to play for the Irish U-21 side in their European qualifier with Azerbaijan on March 27.

Lenihan is just back from a lengthy injury lay-off to join Williams in helping Blackburn’s attempt to escape League One.

For Stevens, the call-up is a reward for a circuitous journey to the English second tier. The ex-Shamrock Rovers left-back moved to Aston Villa but dropped down the leagues before earning a move to Sheffield United last summer.

Seamus Coleman is back a year after his leg-break horror.

Irish Independent

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