O’Neill: player eligibility is a football issue not a political or religious one

Michael O'Neill: Heavy price paid by too many young players.

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill accepts that player eligibility is a football issue not a political or religious one, but has criticised the FAI for their communication with the IFA over players who wish to switch allegiance from the North to the Republic.

In a newspaper interview published last week, O’Neill claimed the FAI “only ever approach one type of player: Catholic”. Republic of Ireland boss Martin O’Neill said that “to bring religion into it” was “very disappointing”.

At a squad announcement in Dublin last week, Martin O’Neill also stressed he had taken no senior player from the North in his time at the helm, prompting his Northern Ireland counterpart to say yesterday that the Republic manager “misunderstood the issues I wish to address”.

In a statement made at the start of his squad announcement in Belfast, Michael O’Neill said: “During a recent interview, I was questioned about the issue of eligibility. Contrary to how it was reported, I did not attack the FAI. I merely responded to the questions I was asked. For me, eligibility is not and should not be a political issue, nor should it be a religious issue. For me, eligibility is a football issue.

Recent media reports have sparked much opinion, particularly around the rights of players born in Northern Ireland to be free to choose for whom they wish to play. I have never disputed that right. Nor have I ever been critical of a player for exercising that right.

“The FAI correctly states it has broken no rules in approaching young Northern Ireland players. My concerns lie specifically with players aged 17 to 21 in the underage set-ups. I’ve seen a heavy price paid by too many talented young players, players who have transferred their allegiance to a country that ultimately doesn’t rate them, nor play them, creating an international vacuum for the player that signals a wholly different outcome to the career that they might have had.

“My request, therefore, to the FAI and to any other association is that: That if a young player has chosen to represent Northern Ireland at Under 17, Under 19 or Under 21 level, that he is allowed to develop in these crucial formative years without the responsibility of having to make a decision regarding his international allegiance that is binding for the rest of his career. My request extends to any country, not just the Republic of Ireland.

Where I am critical of the FAI is the way in which it currently communicates with the IFA over a player who potentially wishes to make a transfer. There is no dialogue with our coaches from their respective counterparts at the FAI besides an email from the FAI’s licensing department, requesting information on the player.

“The Irish FA invests thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of pounds in players in our Club NI programme. While it is a player’s right to choose to play for the Republic of Ireland at underage level, such a decision means that another young player has missed out on the opportunity to be part of our elite performance pathway and another player in the FAI’s system will miss out on selection.

“I have been asking my counterpart at the FAI for a meeting to discuss these issues for more than eight months. I am pleased that he has indicated last week that he is now willing to take me up on that. It is clear to me that given the examples Martin [O’Neill] used in his press conference, that he has misunderstood the issues I wish to address.

"I am not talking about senior players, but those aged 17 to 21 born in Northern Ireland. To reiterate, eligibility is a football issue. We and the FAI have a responsibility to invest in and nurture talent on both sides of the border.

"With that comes a duty and an obligation to protect those young talents in their most formative and vulnerable years. We appeal for transparency and fairness at underage level.

"We respect that young players who represent Northern Ireland at underage level have the right to choose to play for the Republic of Ireland.

"What we are asking for is that such a significant decision, one that could affect their entire career, is neither influenced nor made until that player reaches senior age and is made at a time which is in the player’s best interest.”

He would not take questions on the matter yesterday, claiming his views had been “continually misrepresented by sections of the media”. The FAI declined to comment.

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