Aligning goalposts across Ireland divide

After the big freeze, the thaw, but you suspect that not even the most advanced computer models could have predicted that the temperature of Irish football would rise as dramatically as it has done over the past few days.

Aligning goalposts across Ireland divide

As Martin O’Neill rather delicately put it on Thursday, when called upon to respond to Michael O’Neill’s controversial interview from earlier in the week, “the unexpected nature of the comments” had come as “a bit of a surprise”.

It’s not difficult to understand how seeing the defection of players they have helped develop is a source of frustration for the IFA but the reality is that a combination of Fifa eligibility rules and the Good Friday Agreement means the FAI are well within their rights to try to procure talent from north of the border.

Michael O’Neill proposed his own novel solution this week, saying: “I hope that Martin and I can get some sort of gentlemen’s agreement whereby if a young boy has represented Northern Ireland at aged 17 to 21, the FAI don’t ask him to change.”

Couched in such solicitous terms, it sounded like an eminently reasonable proposition, one with the well-being of the youth at heart. But the obvious problem with this modest proposal is that it is hardly the prerogative of the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland managers to hammer out a middle way. Key figures in football north and south they may be but, as Martin O’Neill has acknowledged, they are still no more than the current incumbents, temporary custodians of the hot seats.

Frankly, it is not up them to set some sort of precedent, however informal. For any change in the status quo, it would require the football associations in Belfast and Dublin to see if they could come to an agreement, otherwise the successors to the two O’Neills could well find themselves entangled in recent history, as if the accumulated weight and complexity of all the preceding decades weren’t already enough to be going on with.

In which context, Michael O’Neill’s claim that the FAI only go after Catholic players was, as the other O’Neill again carefully chose to phrase it, “disappointing”. However much one might wish the situation to be otherwise, it is surely no more than a common-sense reflection of the reality of a divided island that the FAI would concentrate their efforts on scouting players from north of the border who, for reasons of identity rather than just religious affiliation, it could be assumed would be not only comfortable with, but even passionate about, representing the Republic.

Martin O’Neill was at pains to point out this week that, since becoming the Republic of Ireland manager, he hadn’t taken a single player from Michael O’Neill’s pool for his senior squad, although it’s only fair to acknowledge that the latter’s concern is really about the developing talent who might be open to switching allegiance. (And that’s another point which was fairly made by his Republic counterpart: the players do have to be open to the idea — intrinsically attracted to the option of going south as opposed to being seduced or coerced into making such a move).

Martin O’Neill, a former Northern Ireland captain, and rightly proud of all he achieved with his great team, conceded that he can’t see how the current eligibility rules can be of benefit to Northern Ireland. But so long as they do apply — and regardless of who occupies the dugouts in Windsor Park and the Aviva — it will remain the case that the respective managers will continue to be motivated by identical but, in this small space we share, potentially conflicting goals: to make their football teams as good as they can possibly be.

Which was presumably the ambition which Martin O’Neill would much preferred to have spent the bulk of his time addressing when he turned up in the Aviva press conference room on Thursday to unveil his squad for this month’s training camp and friendly in Turkey.

The introduction of some new faces, the absence of few familiar ones and a strong hint that some of the latter are about to follow Wes Hoolahan and Daryl Murphy into international retirement — all these matters would, ordinarily, have expanded to fill the time available but, of course, all were relegated to second place in the headlines beneath the ‘war of words’.

Indeed, if the football teams from North and South weren’t where they currently are — both engaged in planning longer-term, having failed to qualify for the World Cup finals — it’s hard to imagine that the poaching issue would have reared its head at all just now. It has long smouldered in the background to some extent, and even reached the Court of Arbitration in Sport in 2010, but I don’t recall it re-emerging as a hot topic of conversation as the green fields of France were beckoning this time two years ago.

Given his more limited resources, it’s a real credit to Michael O’Neill that he has matched the other O’Neill’s achievements over the last two campaigns, with both of their teams qualifying for those Euro finals in 2016 and both failing at the final hurdle of the World Cup play-offs last year, albeit that, after the latter, Northern Ireland were left nursing a justifiable sense of grievance and the Republic suffering something more akin to post-traumatic shock.

And maybe, in that regard at least, perhaps Martin O’Neill can be grateful for the unexpected diversion when he faced the media this week: the most recent game he managed for the Republic of Ireland barely got a look-in.

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