FAI boss John Delaney believes qualification for the European Championships in 2016 would be an appropriate way to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, especially now as we have a manager who not only was born in the six counties but was captain of its Northern Ireland football team.
Whatever about Delaney’s logic in that regard, it raised the question as to whether O’Neill’s appointment could heal not just the division between his new assistant Roy Keane and the FAI (and a chunk of the public) but between the two football associations on this island. It was a question Delaney didn’t seem to have expected during his round of broadcast interviews on Tuesday to reveal the signing of the managerial dream team. Quickly, Delaney sought to emphasise that any answers he gave me were his own personal opinion and not in his role as chief executive of the FAI. But he opined that a united Ireland football team would not come before there was a political settlement, by which it seemed he meant a united Ireland.
Given that he is likely to be waiting a long time for that, it would seem that the idea of a 32-county football team is nowhere near fruition. Indeed, the question is how many people in positions of authority in either football association would have a grá for the idea, no matter how popular it might be with a majority of football fans (with a significant minority in opposition).
One team means one unified association and one set of officials. A lot of people would lose power and influence in such circumstances. Political compromise in Northern Ireland was largely achieved by throwing jobs at people, by giving everyone a role. But the reverse would be the case if peace was to break out in Irish football. The world and European authorities, at FIFA and UEFA, would require the amalgamation of two bodies and that would mean a single all-island league too. There have been minor moves towards this in recent times, such as the institution of the Setanta Cup, a mini-league format for the top teams in each jurisdiction’s league.
And relations have been made worse in recent times by the manner in which the Republic of Ireland has attempted to harvest players from the North, using the nationality provisions of the Good Friday Agreement to do so.
It is an entirely legitimate choice by the likes of Darron Gibson and James McClean but it is one that has caused considerable angst among those of the unionist persuasion who believe place of birth should dictate which team a player should represent.
Sympathy for this point of view was diluted by memories of the experience of Neil Lennon and some other Catholic players during the 1990s and 2000s, especially those who like Lennon played for Glasgow Celtic in Scotland. They were subjected to appalling abuse by Northern Ireland supporters.
It is also 20 years ago this month since one of the worst exhibitions of sectarian hatred was ever played out in front of a watching television audience; nothing to do with what happened on the field of play, but the hatred from the Northern crowd towards a Republic team that needed a point from a qualifying game to reach the 1994 US World Cup finals was obnoxious to observe.
In retrospect, the failure to lance that boil may have contributed to the circumstances of the Loughlinisland atrocity of June 1994 when six men were murdered in a pub as they watched the Republic play Italy in that day’s World Cup match in New Jersey.
These developments, as well as being horrible and evil in their own right, did an enormous disservice to the memory of the wonderful Northern Ireland team of the 1980s, which performed sensationally in two World Cups, in 1982 and 1986, particularly under the captaincy of O’Neill in ’82 when they beat the host side Spain. There were many outstanding players in that team from a Catholic background, including the likes of the legendary goalkeeper Pat Jennings and Mal Donaghy.
But in reality the religious backgrounds of the players was largely irrelevant. They just got on with doing the job of representing themselves and each other as best they could. They did so at a time when the six counties were riven by sectarian violence.
Imagine though if the players of the 1980s had come together to form a United Ireland team. The Republic had failed to reach the 1982 finals because of suspiciously dreadful refereeing. But the combination of our players and the North’s would have made for a side with realistic ambitions of reaching the semi-finals.
Now both of the Irish teams are struggling badly in international competition. Combined they would have a better chance of qualification for the major events. Northern Ireland has made a gesture towards the nationalist community by keeping the former Shamrock Rovers manager, and former Northern Ireland player, Michael O’Neill as manager despite some wildly variable results in its doomed World Cup qualifying campaign. But many Catholics in the North actually support the Republic rather than the northern team and will do with even greater fervour now that former Derry minor gaelic footballer Martin O’Neill is in charge.
Delaney said relationships between the FAI and IFA are very good, “with the exception of that one issue”. It is a major sticking point but one which could be overcome if there was a single team and therefore no opportunity to squabble about who plays for who. There doesn’t seem to be much popular interest in the idea. The fear of rejection by loyalists seems to run too deep. Would they come to Dublin for matches and if so would they riot? What would happen when asked to stand for ‘Amhrán na Bfhiann’, as would have to happen in the host jurisdiction? Would some games be held at Windsor Park in Belfast and, if so, how safe would southerners be given what happened 20 years ago?
It happens in other sports, though, without any real difficulty. Ireland is represented as a 32-county island in rugby union, cricket, hockey, boxing and golf, for example. Some may opt to represent the UK in Olympic sports and that is a matter of personal choice that we shouldn’t deny, just as we want people from the six counties to represent the Republic. But those who come together find that they enjoy the experience enormously and that does all sorts of other good.
I’m just about old enough to remember a thrilling match from 1973 in which Martin O’Neill was involved (although I don’t remember him in the way I remember the flamboyant late Derek Dougan, a thrilling centre forward born to the loyalist tradition but who didn’t have a sectarian bone in his body). An All-Ireland team, which had to be called a Shamrock Rovers XI for political reasons, took on the world champions Brazil and lost by 4-3. It was one of the games that hooked me on football for the rest of my life. Ever since I’ve wanted to see an All-Ireland team compete in this sport, as in others.
So while it would be great to see O’Neill and Keane succeed in bringing the Republic to the 2016 European championships it would be even better to see them manage a 32-county team into the following World Cup qualifiers. Unfortunately, it’s an idea doesn’t seem to be on too many agendas.
*The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved