As the Northern Ireland player eligibility debate continues to rumble and as fans boycott games in protest against governing bodies the future of nation’s football as we know it hangs by a delicate thread.
At the centre of the storm is a situation unique in football.
Dual citizenship available in Northern Ireland allows residents to claim citizenship to either Great Britain and Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.
This enables footballers to rise through the ranks of the Northern Ireland’s Irish Football Association (IFA), representing the country at youth level before switching allegiances to the Football Association of Ireland (FIA), provided they have not represented Northern Ireland at senior level.
This unusual ruling as led to frustration from the IFA over the FIA ‘poaching’ Northern Ireland-trained players.
Recent players to make the switch include, Manchester Utd’s Darron Gibson, Stoke City’s Marc Wilson, Everton’s Shane Duffy and Preston North End’s Adam Barton and Daniel Devine, the latter being the latest to do so.
It as also recently emerged that the FAI were actively pursing the recruitment of Northern Ireland U-21 regular and Newcastle player, Shane Ferguson. Not only adding fuel to the fire but a clear indication of the FIA’s blatant exploitation the rule in an attempt to strengthen their youth set-up.
With a population of only 1.6 million and with an increasingly small pool of international quality players, the IFA’s objections over the ruling are understandably justified.
Following Shane Duffy’s defection last year, the IFA challenged the ruling at the Court of Arbitration of Sport in an attempt to prevent more Northern Ireland born players opting for the Republic of Ireland.
Northern Ireland manager Nigel Worthington believes the country’s “production line” is being lost and any ruling “needs to be more black and white”.
Worthington frustrations stem not from a player declining to play for Northern Ireland but the time and investment spent on the development of players, he said:
“It’s frustrating and disappointing that a lot of time, energy, commitment and finance goes into these players over a period of years and then when they are 17, 18, 19 or even 20, there is the opportunity for them, because of the ruling, to vacate to another country.”
For the IFA it looks a losing battle, the Court of Arbitration of Sport have ruled against changing the rule leaving the IFA to focus their attentions on players who want to play for Northern Ireland.
As it is impossible to force someone into playing for the country of their birth; evident in the high number of players who choose relatives’ home countries over their own elsewhere.
A solution may be found in youth players declaring their international preference at a certain age before representing at youth level and should be bound to that decision of the remainder of their career.
In a country such as Northern Ireland this choice is often more clear-cut from an early age than many people care to acknowledge. It is widely suggested through football circles that Northern Ireland provides a higher quality of training at youth level and certainly more opportunities for players to make their mark than that of the Republic.
It would take a very naive person to fail to see an ulterior motive in a player deciding to play for Northern Ireland when the player’s true affiliations lie elsewhere.
It is widely accepted among club football but a long standing feeling of pride of representing your country at international level is being dragged through the dirt for the sake of furthering one’s career.
The majority of these players come from professional clubs in the UK were everyday they are working with some of the best coaches in around; it’s unlikely that they are eternally benefiting from their time with Northern Ireland. Instead, they are effectively putting themselves in the shop window for selection for the Republic.
Therefore unfairly denying another player of a place in the squad and the opportunity represent his home country.
The depth of Northern Ireland’s selection pool was ruthlessly exposed on Tuesday during a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of the Republic of Ireland (which included former NI player Marc Wilson before being withdrawn due to injury) in the Nations Cup at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
In an objection to the IFA’s decision to only allow fans on specially commissioned coaches to attend the game and charging £30 a head, the game was boycotted and a small pocket of just 200 fans made the trip with fewer expected to travel to Wales on Friday.
The IFA cited the threat of violence as the reasoning behind the decision. The Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters (AONIS) disagrees this should cost as much as the IFA are saying. An AONIS statement said:
“Whilst we recognise that there is a need for some restrictions to be put in place to ensure that the good reputation of Northern Ireland fans is protected, we are totally opposed to the costs that fans are being asked to pay.
We find it difficult to accept that the cost of putting in place the necessary stewarding and arrangements for travelling fans could reach a figure potentially in excess of £1,100 per coach, without considerable profiteering.”
The IFA stand at a crossroads; the impetus now stands squarely on them to ensure current and future players have the desire and the commitment to play for Northern Ireland’s international team.
With FIFA refusing to budge on the issue, it is all that can possibly be done at this moment in time.
Hopefully a change will come along in the near future, preserving Northern Ireland’s footballing heritage and protecting it from terminal decline by players undeserving of the privilege to represent the country who gave them the opportunity to prove themselves on the world stage.