Northern Ireland could be set to lose another promising young player to the Republic of Ireland.
The Belfast Telegraph understands that Newcastle United’s gifted teenage full-back Shane Ferguson may be about to jump ship from north to south.
The 19-year-old, born in Londonderry, made his Premier League debut earlier this year and ex-Newcastle and Northern Ireland hero Tommy Cassidy says it will be a huge blow if he decides to switch allegiances.
Ferguson, who played at various youth levels for Northern Ireland, has won one senior cap for Nigel Worthington’s side, coming on as a substitute in a 3-0 friendly defeat to Italy in June 2009.
The fact that it wasn’t a competitive international means that he can still declare for the Republic, just as Preston midfielder Adam Barton has done.
Barton played in a friendly game for Northern Ireland against Morocco last November, but has since thrown his lot in with the Republic of Ireland and has turned out for their under-21 team.
The fear is that Ferguson is about to go the same way.
Two years ago FIFA decreed that under the Good Friday Agreement if a player eligible for Northern Ireland has an Irish passport he can play for the Republic.
The FAI have taken advantage of that ruling with Darron Gibson, Shane Duffy, Marc Wilson, Daniel Kearns and Paul George making the move.
Ferguson is rated so highly at Newcastle that some feel he could be a bigger loss than any of the above.
Strangely, even though Worthington is not afraid to use young talent — last week’s match in Serbia was a case in point — Ferguson has not been called upon since the Italian game.
Irish FA president Jim Shaw says that nothing official has been heard about the Eglinton lad and the Republic, but clearly they are worried at Windsor Avenue.
Shaw said: “We haven’t heard anything, but it would be another disappointment for us if Shane decides to go.
“I remember seeing him at under-19 level and he looked superb. He was taking players on and I remember thinking he was just the type of player we needed.”
Newcastle fans are starting to think the same thing about the teenage sensation, who has been at their club since he was 16, and has been put on a special diet by boss Alan Pardew to help build his physique.
Having made Carling Cup appearances and his Premier League debut earlier this season, it’s been his recent displays from the bench, including one against Stoke, when he came on for the much-admired Jose Enrique at left-back, that has made a real impression on the Toon Army.
“We lost 4-0 that day, but he was fantastic,” said 1982 World Cup star Cassidy, a midfield general for Newcastle in the 70s.
“The supporters have been raving about him ever since.
“In that game he showed tremendous ability, getting up the left side to support the attack and he was unlucky not to score.
“There is a thought that Enrique might move on at the end of the season, either to La Liga or another club in the Premier League, but the word from Newcastle is that they feel in young Shane they have a ready made replacement at left-back.
“Talking to the guys in the coaching academy they say he stands out a mile and believe he will make it.
“Having seen him in training and in the first team games he’s played to date, I would agree with them.
“That’s why I feel it would be a massive blow if he didn’t go on and play for Northern Ireland because, with him being only 19, he could hold down the left back position for 10 to 15 years.
“With George McCartney retiring from international football we don’t have any natural left-backs and Shane would fit the bill.
“Having watched our last two games in the Euro qualifiers against Serbia and Slovenia, I believe we need more Premier League players in our ranks, and there’s no doubt Shane will be one of those in the future.
“If I were the IFA and Nigel Worthington, I’d be trying everything to keep him.”
Cassidy, like many other Northern Ireland supporters is dismayed that so many youngsters from here are opting to join the Republic.
He is very much of an old-school opinion believing the country you are born in should be the country you play for.
Cassidy said: “I remember when Lawrie McMenemy was the Northern Ireland manager and he was chasing various players not born in our country, which I was totally against.
“One was Dele Adebola — the story goes that Lawrie phoned him up and said he’d like him to play for us. Dele said ‘I love Northern Ireland — I’ve been to Dublin many times’. In the end, thankfully Dele didn’t play for us.”
The thing is there is more than a grain of truth in that joke now, with Dublin being chosen ahead of Belfast by many of this country’s most talented young footballers.
If exciting Newcastle United wing starlet Shane Ferguson decides to swap Northern Ireland for the Republic — thanks to Fifa’s decision that the Good Friday Agreement opened the border up for players to choose whom they played for — he joins the latest in a worryingly ever-growing list of those who have flown south.
The main losses so far for Northern Ireland have been Manchester United midfielder Darron Gibson who was at the centre of the bitter eligibility row between the IFA and FAI. His Londonderry counterpart, Shane Duffy, swapped one green shirt for another even though the Everton man, currently on loan at Burnley, played for Northern Ireland at various levels and was an unused substitute for the senior side against Italy in 2009.
Marc Wilson, from Aghagallon, who plays in Premiership for Stoke City, also decided to plump for the Republic and won his first full cap against Wales in February.