O’Neill disappointed allegiance dispute took religious turn

Martin O’Neill says he has made known to Michael O’Neill his disappointment at the Northern Ireland manager’s recent criticism of the FAI’s recruitment of players north of the border.

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill arrives at the Aviva Stadium for yesterday's squad announcement. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

“I’d like to know the number of players we’re really talking about,” said the Republic of Ireland manager.

“I’m not in control of everything. The most important thing for me is the senior side. In my time, four years, I’ve not taken a player so naturally when I see this coming up, and I’m the spokesperson for the association, particularly at senior level, then I’m disappointed at the comments, and I’ve told him that. Really disappointed.

“I don’t think it’s an accurate portrayal of my time. In fact, it’s not true at all. In terms of senior football, he had to admit the other day in the conversation that I’ve never taken a player from him.

"Not one player. I didn’t realise until I was looking it up that Alex Bruce was the one who’d gone in the opposite direction and, interestingly, played two games and didn’t play any more.”

In a newspaper interview published on Tuesday, the Northern Ireland manager had charged that the FAI “only ever approach one type of player: Catholic”.

Responding yesterday, his southern counterpart said: “To actually talk about religion and bring religion into it… I think that’s something you’ll have to ask Michael about.

I’ve played for Northern Ireland 60-odd times, captained them a number of times during their most successful period. Not only had we great players playing from both sides of the political divide but we had great camaraderie, so it’s very disappointing.

Michael O’Neill had also claimed that Sunderland defender Paddy McNair, a Protestant, had only come under the FAI’s radar because of his name. Martin O’Neill responded: “My association would say that that’s absolutely and utterly untrue.”

In his interview, the Northern Ireland manager had proposed meeting with his Republic counterpart with a view to reaching a “gentlemen’s agreement” that the FAI would not try to recruit players who had already represented the North at underage level.

But Martin O’Neill, while prepared to acknowledge that “it’s worth having a conversation about”, suggested any such agreement would have to be worked out by the IFA and the FAI.

“Whatever Michael says and I say here, we are managers at the time but we’re somewhat transient,” he pointed out.

“If something happens within the next couple of years then an agreement between two managers I think would pose some sort of difficulty, I must admit. But I think it’s worth having a conversation about.

“But it’s not as if to say that we are lifting a load of players from them at underage level and preventing them from doing something. The player has the choice. I think that is very important and something that’s been overlooked in this.

They’re not being coerced into doing this. They’re being asked. And if I was a player and two nations were looking for me, I think that I’d be kind of overjoyed about that, I must admit.

One player who is eligible for both the North and the Republic is QPR striker and Northern Ireland U21 international Paul Smyth but while Martin O’Neill rates him highly, he says is not actively pursuing him out of respect for the work Michael O’Neill has already put in with him.

“I could have gone to him, he still hasn’t made his mind up about things,” said the Republic’s manager.

“Michael has put a lot of work in and, regardless of what I think or Michael thinks, it’s down to the player and if the player thinks ‘I am happy with what Michael has done for me, I am really happy to go on with this’, I would totally abide by that.”

It would be different, he added, if Smyth expressed an interest in switching allegiance.

“Of course, why would I not want to speak to him,” he said. “But I am not imagining that will be the case. Michael has done a lot of work with him. Unless I got a call from someone along the way, Michael has made inroads into that and well done Michael for that.”

Asked if Michael O’Neill had apologised to him for some of the comments in his interview, Martin O’Neill said that question would have to be addressed to his counterpart.

He added: “My relationship with Michael is very good, excellent. I’m disappointed with the comments, and disappointed if they were even remotely aimed at me.”

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