Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough and the Irish FA have been left reeling after Oxford United's Mark Sykes indicated he wants to play for the Republic of Ireland.
Baraclough will today name his first Northern Ireland squad since replacing Michael O'Neill as boss, but former Glenavon hero Sykes told the IFA's new chief he didn't wish to be considered.
Despite featuring for Northern Ireland from schoolboy level through to making 11 appearances for the under-21s and being included in three senior squads, the 23-year-old says he's switching his allegiance.
The Irish Football Association and the Football Association of Ireland, have been locked in eligibility disagreements for over a decade after former FIFA President Sepp Blatter and then the Court of Arbitration for Sport shared the view that players born in Northern Ireland, who hold an Irish passport, could be snapped up by the Republic as long as they haven't made a senior competitive appearance.
While the system allows Sykes to make this switch it is now expected to come under further criticism with many observers feeling players should make a decision on their future at an earlier age so that the Irish FA's investment in them is not wasted.
The Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland squads for September's behind closed doors Nations League matches will be named today, with Baraclough's men preparing for games away to Romania on September 4 and at home to Norway three days later.
Midfielder Sykes, who moved to League One side Oxford in January 2019, will not be involved despite saying last year: "When I've been with the senior squad I've felt as though I've trained well and in terms of getting the first cap, when the opportunity comes hopefully I can grab it with both hands and make an impact."
An Irish FA spokesperson said they were "disappointed" by the development but would make no further comment at this time.
The Belfast man was first included in the senior Northern Ireland squad in May last year and was in the panel named by O’Neill in March for the Euro 2020 play-off semi-final away Bosnia-Herzegovina before it was knocked back by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Northern Ireland would end up playing the Republic in the play-off final at Windsor Park in November if both sides win their semi-final ties.
Sykes, who played for Baraclough when he was the under-21 manager and scored against Estonia and Slovakia, helped Oxford to the League One play-off final last season, scoring at Wembley in their defeat by Wycombe Wanderers last month.
Darron Gibson, Marc Wilson, James McClean, Shane Duffy and Michael Duffy are among several players who have declared for the Republic in the past.
Gary McAllister, chairman of the Amalgamation of Official Northern Ireland Supports’ Clubs, commented on Twitter: “Disappointing news. Whatever your view of the player, and I’m sorry Mark has made this decision, I think the focus should be on the system which allows this to happen without any compensation for the Association who has already invested the time and resources.”
Michael O’Neill had hoped a ‘gentleman’s agreement’, between the two associations, would come into play so that young players didn’t have to make an early decision on their international futures as once they change associations, they can’t return.
However, with Martin O’Neill leaving the FAI, that never came to fruition.
And new Republic chief Stephen Kenny said he would select players born in Northern Ireland — if they want to declare for his team.
The former Derry City and Dundalk boss is understood to have contacted Sykes earlier this summer, but Kenny may have to wait for Sykes to become available as it will take time for the relevant transfer procedures to be completed.
The Irish FA have always been aware of their vulnerability following the rules, saying previously: “We respect a player’s right to choose, but we will continue to work hard to offer players born in Northern Ireland a pathway to our senior international team.”
Although Sykes’ decision is a blow to Baraclough, he will be encouraged by the growing maturity of Leeds United midfielder Alfie McCalmont.