The IFA have said that Michael O’Neill was speaking “in a personal capacity” when he criticised the FAI’s recruitment of players from Northern Ireland and charged that they only approach Catholics.
The North’s football association have also reiterated that they accept the right of any player born within the jurisdiction to choose whether to play for the North or the Republic.
Asked about O’Neill’s comments yesterday, the IFA’s head of communications, Neil Brittain, said: “Anyone born in Northern Ireland has the right to play for the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. That is something we accept. The thing for us is to create an international programme which is professional and representative of this part of the world.”
Brittain said he had spoken to O’Neill since the publication of the controversial interview and suggested that, on reflection, the manager might choose to express his remarks differently.
“Sometimes it’s hard to get through the noise of this and get to the point of what Michael was trying to say,” he said.
“What he was trying to say is essentially that kids who are 16, 17, having to make the decision to choose between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, sometimes that’s too young for that player to make that call.
“Michael is very passionate about this subject and largely his success depends upon an international team with good players in it.
“And some of those good players don’t end up playing for the team that he manages. Part of where this story has come from is his outpouring of passion on this particular subject. He probably expressed it in a way which he maybe would reflect he might want to do differently.
“But what he genuinely was trying to find was a positive way of working with the FAI to say, ‘is there a process that we can put in place that’s for the best interests of potential international footballers, whether that be for the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland’.”
In the interview in the Daily Mail, the Northern Ireland manager had also proposed a meeting with his Republic of Ireland counterpart, Martin O’Neill, with a view to reaching an agreement that the FAI would not try to entice players south who had already represented the North at underage level.
“I hope that Martin and I can get some sort of gentleman’s agreement whereby if a young player has represented Northern Ireland at aged 17 to 21, the FAI don’t ask him to change,” he said.
If a young player “turns out to be a superstar”, he added, “the FAI can get him before I cap him, they just have to stay on top of it”.
Brittain said the face-to-face meeting was the manager’s own idea rather than an IFA proposal, pointing out that the two O’Neills are well-known to each other.
“It’s not exactly as if the two men are strangers,” he said. “They’ve known each other an extremely long time. They have had plenty of interaction over the years and keep in contact.”
Current regulations, backed by Fifa and copper-fastened by a Court of Arbitration of Sport decision in 2010, allow players on both sides of the border to switch allegiance if they have not been capped at senior level.
“I don’t have a problem with James McClean who was 22 years of age, he knew what he wanted,” said the Northern Ireland manager of the Derry man who has become a key player in Martin O’Neill’s team.
“I have a problem when it’s a 16-, 17-, or 18 year-old having to make a decision on his international future. What is the point in asking a player to change his international allegiance, to make a decision about his whole international future, and then not pick him?
“I can list you ten players who have made that decision and have never represented the Republic.”
Of his own team’s make-up, Michael O’Neill said: “I always look at the team before a game and typically eight to nine of the 11 are Northern Ireland-born. It’s something that I’m quite proud of, and also that both sides of the community are represented.”
Asked if there would be any concerns in Belfast about the impact of the manager’s comments on relations with Dublin, Neil Brittain said: “The reality is that the relationship between the FAI and the IFA is very strong, very positive.”
The FAI, for their part, were making no comment yesterday, and it remains to be seen if Martin O’Neill will be willing to address the matter when, tomorrow in Dublin, he unveils his squad for the training camp and friendly in Turkey later this month.
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