Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Michael O'Neill: James McClean made 'right decision' switching to Republic

By Paul Ferguson, Sunday Life

Diplomatic Michael O'Neill has attempted to take the sting out of Thursday night's all-Ireland derby in Dublin by admitting controversial winger James McClean's decision to switch allegiance to the Republic has ultimately been a 'good choice' for the player.

Londonderry lad McClean is one of a number of players, along with Shane Duffy, Darron Gibson, Eunan O'Kane and Daniel Kearns, who had been at the forefront of a decade-long eligibility war between the Irish FA and FAI after they jumped ship to the Republic having played under-age international football with Northern Ireland.

But with the Irish FA conceding all legal avenues have been exhausted in a pursuit to close the eligibility loophole and promoting a newly formed working relationship with their counterparts in Dublin, O'Neill accepts Stoke winger McClean and Brighton defender Duffy, who are expected to line-out against Northern Ireland in the friendly at the Aviva Stadium, made the 'right decision'.

"The players made that choice and they had the right to make that choice. For Shane Duffy and James McClean it has proven to be a good choice," states O'Neill.

"They have played an awful lot of international football, they have both played in a major tournament and it was a decision they wanted to make."

When Michael O'Neill signed a lucrative four-year extension to his Irish FA contract last February, he was awarded the additional title of Director of Football.

It was a position largely overlooked considering the Northern Ireland manager, unlike some of his predecessors, had taken a keen and pro-active interest in all aspects of football development within the IFA since his appointment in early 2012.

Yet for O'Neill (left), Northern Ireland manager and IFA Director of Football covers a multitude of roles away from the pitch including recruiter, social worker, agent, diplomat and "firefighter".

His powers of dialogue have been used to persuade young nationalists to stick with the country of their birth rather than make the foray down south, to encourage players, who qualify on the bloodline route, to consider switching their allegiance to Northern Ireland, to promote a player to a club manager in the hope they will be snapped up, to reassure a club manager their player will be well managed on international duty and in recent weeks to sort out the sorry mess involving Kyle Lafferty's no show for the Nations League games in Austria and Bosnia followed by the subsequent fall-out and then punishment which resulted in Rangers losing their player for a league match.

Now as Northern Ireland prepare to clash with the Republic of Ireland on Thursday night at the Aviva Stadium - a friendly which was more or less forced upon the two Associations by UEFA due to the limited availability of other nations - O'Neill has been dousing the flames ahead of what could be a heated and intense battle.

With the eligibility row still raw for many Northern Ireland fans, especially as James McClean and Shane Duffy, who came through the IFA's youth set-up, are expected to play for the Republic on Thursday and therefore proof the FAI won the war, O'Neill has been quick to put forward the 2018 official IFA line on the matter that the choice of the player should be respected and today he states the decision by the two Londonderry lads has ultimately proved correct in terms of their international careers.

O'Neill has also insisted his relationship with the Republic boss Martin O'Neill "is fine" despite Northern Ireland's 1982 World Cup skipper taking issue with certain comments he made on the FAI and eligibility earlier this year. Ironically, the two O'Neills will be on stage at a Mansion House function organised by Co-Operation North on the eve of the game at the Aviva Stadium.

The threat of a tinderbox atmosphere is always there but O'Neill, who has arranged a three-day training camp on the north side of Dublin ahead of the friendly, has been accentuating the positives of the international derby.

In the last game between the two countries in Dublin seven years ago, a poorly supported Carling Nations Cup competition, there were minor skirmishes between fans, but O'Neill, when questioned about trouble, pointed out the exceptional behaviour of the two sets of supporters during the Euro 2016 finals in France.

"You talk about the rivalry of the two nations, but they were both awarded the Grand Vermeil in Paris for their supporters, that's what we want to see," stresses O'Neill.

"We want the atmosphere to be what it was between the sets of supporters and how they were in France, great scenes you see with both sets of fans mixing. Hopefully it can be an open, exciting game with a great atmosphere, and we get the preparation that we both need."

That preparation is of course for the final Nations League games against Austria and Denmark respectively, but with both Northern Ireland and the Republic likely to finish bottom of their groups, this match suddenly has extra significance and attention.

The fact Martin O'Neill (below) is under pressure with regard to his job security is also a factor. Northern Ireland chief O'Neill would dearly love to win this fixture, as a player he was involved in five matches between the two countries and failed to win one, and he believes it will be a special match for his side.

O'Neill says: "The games were always good to be involved in, great games to be involved in as a player, the atmosphere was always good. You know the players as well, you know who you're playing against, there's always that local rivalry or players are at the same club.

"I often hear (assistant manager) Jimmy Nicholl talk about how he loved the Home Nations, when they used to play it at the end of the season, it's something we don't have now but those games all have an edge to them, I think more of an edge than a friendly against another nation from overseas so I think this is a good game."

After the match in Sarajevo last month, Northern Ireland's third defeat in the Nations League, midfielder George Saville, in an emotional response as he listened to the Green and White Army continue to sing loud and proud long after the final whistle, stated that he and his team-mates owed those supporters a big win in Dublin. O'Neill disagrees and certainly doesn't believe his men have a point to prove.

"I don't think we owe the supporters a result," adds O'Neill. "I think the supporters recognise what we are trying to do here.

"What is success in the Nations League? It's a potential play-off. We have to be realistic and it was a necessity to develop the team. I think the supporters that saw us play against Bosnia at home and Israel saw a team playing in the fashion they want to see.

"The team in the last two campaigns and the finals is a team the fans wanted to see play and now hopefully they are seeing an element of transition in the team."

O'Neill has selected a 28-man squad and the focus is very much on youth with Paul Smyth, Gavin Whyte, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Conor Hazard and Jordan Thompson in the squad while under-21 skipper Liam Donnelly would have been included only for injury to rule him out.

"I want young players in Northern Ireland to see there is a pathway for them," remarks O'Neill.

"There is a pathway for them to play through the U21s and be a part of the senior squad, and that that opportunity exists quite early in their career.

"In the last two games we had three under-21 players on the pitch, Gavin Whyte, Jamal Lewis and Bailey Peacock-Farrell. We have Conor Hazard who has been capped, wee Paul (Smyth) who has been capped as well, Jordan comes into the mix as well, I believe that Shayne Lavery, who's not with us, is another one who will come through in the not-too-distant-future.

"I just want all the young players to recognise that the opportunity will be there for them."

O'Neill is showing genuine leadership in trying circumstances, mending relationships and continuing to keep the country going forward.

He'll soon be able to add politician to his illustrious CV - all of course under the guise of Northern Ireland manager.

Maybe those at Stormont should take note...

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