The FAI’s selection of “granny rulers” and Northerners – a response to Eamonn Sweeney

According to Eamonn Sweeney, writing for the Irish Independent on the 4th of October, “the way [Ireland have] used the granny rule is a prime example of sleeveenism, sharp practice and the search for a short-term advantage”.

Sweeney makes a number of negative points, with which I take issue, both in relation to the FAI’s utilisation of the rule and in relation to specific, once-potential or assumed “granny rulers”. He begins:

There’s been something utterly demeaning about the way Martin O’Neill and the FAI have traipsed after [Jack] Grealish, trying to hurry him into accepting the green jersey like it was some piece of dodgy merchandise which might not pass muster on closer inspection.

 

In the end Grealish didn’t buy it and his refusal brought home just what a squalid mess our Find Another Irishman policy has become. Like many other tenuously qualified players we seek, Grealish would prefer to play for England. Unlike them, he has a choice in the matter.

 

We can justify this whoring after players who couldn’t find Mayo on a map by wittering on about our emigrant history and London-Irish identity and a lot of other stuff which sounds like a particularly bad Pogues lyric. But we’re not fooling anyone, least of all ourselves.

Sweeney must have donned his Martin Samuel mask for the day… It is both unfair and inaccurate to suggest that Martin O’Neill and the FAI have “traipsed after” Jack Grealish (or, indeed, other dual national players, for that matter).

 

On the contrary, in Grealish’s case, Martin O’Neill gave a young dual national player as much time and space as was needed or wanted without exerting any pressure whatsoever in order to allow said player to make a difficult career decision; the approach of O’Neill was very reasonable and respectful of the wishes of Jack Grealish and his family.

In fact, O’Neill was mindful to avoid burdening Grealish with added expectation and, indeed, criticised Roy Hodgson during the saga after he perceived the England manager to have been “putting the pressure on” the Aston Villa player.

Not once did O’Neill give the impression he was chasing or “whoring” after Grealish and begging him to play for Ireland. The Ireland manager met up with Grealish in August of 2014 in order to gauge the player’s intentions and, on a second occasion, one year later, when Grealish informed him that a final decision on his international future was nigh.

Indeed, Grealish emphasised that O’Neill had not attempted to pressure him into a choice and the player expressed his appreciation for O’Neill’s methods. Between those meetings, O’Neill enquired as to whether Grealish would welcome selection into the senior squad in May of 2015, but, despite initial optimism, nothing became of it and O’Neill accepted the player’s will with grace. There was nothing unreasonable, desperate or demeaning about any of that.

It seems O’Neill cannot win and will always have his detractors either way; whilst Sweeney has accused him of desperately chasing after Grealish, the notorious controversialist Eamon Dunphy criticised the Irish manager for supposedly not having done enough to secure the services of the player earlier in failing to cap him competitively during Ireland’s Euro 2016 qualifier versus Gibraltar in October of 2014. Dunphy’s criticism was ill-informed considering Grealish was not available at this point in time and, as it appears in hindsight, would have instigated his “international break” as soon as the likelihood of an invite into the senior squad for a competitive cap-tying fixture became a reality anyway.

There is a valid point with considerable merit to be made in respect of the general health of Irish football, but, in this instance, it is unfortunately deprived of oxygen; it is left lurking somewhere beneath Sweeney’s desire to wholeheartedly disparage the FAI and to use soft targets as scapegoats in a sense of indiscriminate and misdirected frustration.

Ireland’s heavy and now-conventional reliance on players developed in England, whether born in Ireland or not, is undoubtedly far from ideal as a central policy to maintaining the country’s position as a competitive international footballing outfit. As well as it amounting to a total evasion of responsibility, there is much risk attached to such an approach, as we indeed witnessed by way of Grealish opting to switch to England after having played for FAI teams since the age of 14.

The FAI’s extensive utilisation of the “granny rule” papers over cracks at home and lets the association off the hook in terms of the failure to properly build an effective developmental infrastructure that could and should supply a steady and long-term stream of international-standard players.

It would be much more preferable if the FAI, rather than throwing all eggs in the solitary basket of the senior men’s international team, invested in ensuring the creation of a “conveyor belt” for the continual and sustainable future production of young home-grown talent; any strategy on this front should naturally encompass a promotion of the perpetually-malnourished and struggling League of Ireland and the integration of all levels of domestic football within a connected pyramid.

“Piggybacking” off the youth academies of British clubs (where the interests of Irish players are far from the priority and where even the present-day opportunities of English players are limited due to their cash-rich clubs scouting of the entire globe for elite talent) and getting dragged into doomed, long-term will-he-or-won’t-he sagas like the Grealish affair should not and cannot be the norm for any healthy set-up.

Rather than devoting sole focus to these points – the crux of the matter – Sweeney instead went about tackling the FAI’s responsibility-dodging by throwing around over-zealous accusations and by further ranting about blameless others, seemingly so as to maximise outrage.

It is not necessary, however, to insult the identity of second and third generation Irish in order to emphasise or reinforce the point that Ireland’s over-reliance on players who have not been developed within the FAI’s system is an issue of major concern requiring swift attention. Who is Sweeney to comment on (and casually dismiss) the authenticity of the Irish identity of others whom he does not personally know?

 

Irish nationals such as Jack Grealish (who played Gaelic football in his youth and who has always expressed positive sentiment for his Irish heritage) might ultimately have preferred to play for England, the land of his birth, but that by no means diminishes his shared Irish identity. As for the Aston Villa player being “tenuously qualified”, three of Grealish’s four grandparents were born in Ireland. That more than fulfils the relevant requirements under Irish nationality law and FIFA’s eligibility regulations.

Ireland’s national history is one of mass emigration. In this sense, it is therefore of little surprise that the diaspora is cherished, celebrated and indeed represented on the national football team. Perhaps it is disproportionately so, compared with other nations. If anything, one might say that that reality makes the side more representative of Irishness than so-called “plasticity”.

Sweeney goes on to single out Tony Cascarino and Martin Keown in his double-pronged attack on FAI policy and Irish persons born outside of Ireland:

In our hearts we know it’s wrong to pick players whose only qualification for Ireland may be one grandparent out of four or even, as in the case of Tony Cascarino, no real qualification at all….

Picking up players with Irish parentage isn’t quite as dubious as going back a couple of generations, though it’s interesting to note that Martin Keown, who’s spoken fondly about how his Irish heritage played a big part in his childhood, says he never gave a thought to playing for this country. As far as he was concerned an Englishman should play for England. There’s not much arguing with that, is there?

The idea that Tony Cascarino had “no real qualification at all” to play for Ireland is a myth often wheeled out to mock Irish selection habits. Indeed, it was one Cascarino fuelled himself, presumably to stir controversy so as to draw attention to and boost sales of his then-upcoming autobiography back in 2000, but he has since been sure to emphasise his qualification – via his legal mother’s Mayo-born grandfather – and proud cultural affiliation with the nation. The FAI also since confirmed that his eligibility was fully above board and in accordance with FIFA’s regulations.

Martin Keown’s England-born son, Niall, has opted to play for Ireland – indeed, Keown the younger described it as “the natural thing for [him] to do” – so it is also highly unlikely that the senior Keown’s thoughts on the complex matter of national sporting identity can actually be neatly summarised by the simple declaration, “an Englishman should play for England”. It is also incorrect for Sweeney to assert that Keown had never given a thought to playing for Ireland. On this very point, an article on Keown in the Irish Independent dated the 13th of May, 2000 stated the following:

More importantly to Keown, having played for England at under-18 and under-21 level, he did not make his full debut until he was 26. “I could very easily have played for Ireland and at one stage efforts were made to try and switch to the Republic of Ireland. I thought, and the club felt, I’d have a better international chance. But the rules in those days were that if you played at under-18 level then that was that. The decision was made very young.”

 

That ceiling was then raised by FIFA to under-21 level, but only after Keown had played it. If there is any Keown regret today it is well-buried – he has, after all, won 28 England caps – but in that fallow spell before his first senior appearance against France in 1992, Keown wondered about the injustice of having to choose so early.

 

“Between the ages of 21 and 26, in those five years I never played international football, and in that period Jackie Charlton tried to get me to play for them, to lift the ruling. Before I played for the under-21s I put a brake on it because I thought I could play for the Republic. Then they (FIFA) said I couldn’t, then they changed the rules.

 

“It turned out to be a very good decision for me and when I play for England there is nobody more English than me. I don’t think anyone could ever doubt my commitment. But I had a lot of relations, cousins and uncles who said to my father: `You know, we can’t believe you let him play for England.’ But my dad says: `This is the country you were born in and you make all your own decisions.’ I think he’s been proved right.

Sweeney continues in his attack on the FAI by comparing the fortunes of the Ireland team with those of the IFA’s Northern Ireland, who “rely almost entirely on native-born footballers”. He adds:

Northern Ireland’s achievement is even more impressive when you consider that in recent years we’ve been poaching their players. The specious justification for this is to blather on about Windsor Park in 1994, imply that Catholics don’t want to play for the North and ignore the fact that not only is their current manager a Catholic, but that many of their best loved players down the years have been too.

 

Our policy of luring promising young Catholic players below the border is in danger of creating for the first time two teams on this island entirely divided by religion. I won’t impute any sinister motive to the FAI. This isn’t about politics, it is once more about sleevenism, sharp practice and the search for a short-term advantage.

Sweeney turns his attention here to denigrating the identity of northern-born Irish nationals and, furthermore, appears to be in denial with regard to their agency when they opt to play for their country; the country they will have supported their whole lives. Whilst many Catholics from the north of Ireland may indeed be happy to line out for Northern Ireland, the reality is that most people from the north’s nationalist community identify culturally with the FAI’s de-facto all-island team.

Of course, the convenient oversight of this fact, that it is northern-born players who choose to make themselves available for selection by the FAI, logically enables Sweeney to accuse the FAI of “poaching” players.

The FAI is, of course, happy and entitled to facilitate such players, but it does not have a sectarian policy of targeting Catholics; indeed, Protestants are free and welcome to declare for the FAI (and those of Ulster heritage have done so in the past), but the socio-political reality in the north dictates that northern-born-and-bred Protestants are extremely unlikely to affiliate culturally with the FAI. Consequently, interest from such Protestants is exceptionally rare.

If those northern Catholic-background players who have opted for the FAI really wanted to be available for selection by the IFA, well, they would have made themselves available for selection by the IFA.

 

The FAI’s selection habits are not a cause of the north’s socio-political circumstances, nor is it the FAI’s duty to resolve such matters to unionist satisfaction, nor is the IFA’s image-problem the fault of the Dublin association, nor, indeed, will the FAI’s facilitation of northern-born Irish nationals result in the two island teams becoming identified strictly along religious lines, of which Sweeney ominously warns, in so far as plenty of northern Catholic-background players, such as Ireland-supporting Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt, remain content to play for Northern Ireland for pragmatic, career-centric reasons.

This is despite the fact that Irish nationals born north of the border have been eligible to play for Ireland since 1956 and have been entitled to switch association (if already in the IFA’s set-up) since 2004. In spite of ample time, there has been no trend whatsoever towards a realisation of the scenario envisaged by Sweeney’s doom-mongering. The reason for this is that there are a finite number of first-team and squad places up for grabs with either team, thus de-incentivising the appeal of switching for many players who might otherwise be interested.

Sweeney actually appears to lack an understanding of the socio-political dynamic north of the border. Indeed, when republican James McClean opted to invoke his human right to negative freedom of expression through a disengagement from observing a rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’ before a pre-season friendly for his club, West Bromwich Albion, a few months ago, Sweeney illiberally attacked McClean (along with unionist politician Tom Elliott), seemingly misinterpreting the Derry player’s gesture – a statement of self-preservation – as one of disrespect rooted in sectarian motives. If Sweeney is going to get into the business of moral judgment and condemnation, he ought to first understand his subjects.

In his bull-headed determination to dismiss the worth of “granny rulers”, Sweeney even forgets the origins of the great Ginger Pelé, Gary Doherty:

Think of the Irish players who’ve been left out in order that caps could be bestowed upon the likes of Paul Green, Paul Butler, Alex Bruce, Jon Goodman, Gary Doherty, Jonathan Macken, Mickey Evans, Paddy Kenny et al.

Doherty was, of course, born in Carndonagh in County Donegal.

In talking of national pride, Sweeney asks:

Why for that matter are Northern Ireland on top of their group? Form and logic would have suggested otherwise so you have to think pride in the national jersey has something to do with it.

Would that same pride be there if the jersey was touted around to players from a neighbouring country? You don’t see the Icelanders wondering if any rejected Swedes might like to join up with them or the Slovakians trying to tap up young Czech prospects.

For most of our imports an Irish cap is nothing more than an admission of failure.

Talk about insulting a whole diaspora! Just because an Irish player might not have been born in Ireland, it does not necessarily negate or lessen the pride or commitment he might possess for representing the country. Besides, Ireland are not the only team in international football to make use of the “granny rule”. Algeria, for example, which has a large diasporic community in France, makes heavy use of FIFA’s eligibility rules in much the same manner as Ireland.

Indeed, a significant proportion of the Algerian squad in recent times has been made up of players who were born in France or who came through the French system, with some even having represented France at youth level before switching to Algeria for their senior international football.

Did or does this diminish their potential pride in eventually representing the land of their heritage? It is unlikely. Did Algerians complain of the effort of their players when their national representatives successfully rode through their group at the 2014 World Cup before being narrowly knocked out by eventual world champions Germany in the second round? Of course not; the public in Algeria embraced their diasporic fellow citizens and welcomed them home as national heroes.

Ought we dismiss our diaspora and northern nationals simply because we wish to reinforce a point in respect of the condition of the FAI’s governance of the game of football in Ireland? Of course not.

This piece is also published here on Daniel’s blog.

Author Details

Daniel Collins

Daniel Collins is a Manchester-based Irish football supporter originally from the north-west of Ireland.

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