The recent (relative) successes of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland national teams at Euro 2016 has reignited an old fire.
A fire that has stayed burning through almost a hundred years of footballing partition, that has seen names like Jimmy Dunne and Con Martin straddle the divide.
It’s a fire that doesn’t quite rage, but remains as an ember mainly – until something provokes a politician on either side of the border to mention the words “All-Ireland football team” (this time it was mooted by a delegate at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis).
A plotted history
The first outing for a national football team from the Republic of Ireland at a major tournament wasn’t, as many would tell you, Euro 1988.
Long before Jack’s boys gave it a lash, Ireland came out of the football tournament at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris with a fifth-placed finish.
Having handily received a bye for the first round, Ireland beat Bulgaria 1-0 before narrowly going out 2-1 to the Netherlands (side note: was this the first moral victory in Irish football history?)
The Republic’s entry into the Games, as the Irish Free State, was highly contentious. The Olympic Council of Ireland, seeing itself as representative of the whole island, regarded the FAIFS (essentially the infant FAI) as partitionist – so the FAIFS had to enter the Games directly through FIFA
From 1884-1924, players from the south of Ireland played for the Irish national team – which Northern Ireland is now recognised as the successor to – winning a British Home Championship in 1914.
Until 1950, the Northern-based IFA continued to select players from the Republic – leading to fairly hostile relations between the IFA and FAI until the 1960s.
An Olympic dream?
2012 saw Team GB enter a football team entirely comprised of players from England and Wales, leading some to question why no Irish team ever attempted to qualify.
In fact, the Republic of Ireland have tried to qualify – with qualification coming through participation in the European under-21 Championships.
Given that the Republic haven’t been successful as yet, and Northern Ireland are likely to be under-represented in any potential Team GB (not that there are any plans for a reprisal), could an All-Ireland team do any better?
Let’s speculate. Under Olympic rules, the team has to be comprised of under-21 players except for three over-age players.
In the interest of cross-border politics, I’ve tried to be relatively even-handed in my selections (not that this is anything but fantasy).
Here is my 23-man Ireland Olympic team:
Michael McGovern* (Northern Ireland, Unattached)
Ian Lawlor (Republic of Ireland, Manchester City)
Danny Rogers (Republic of Ireland, Aberdeen)
Paddy McNair (CB, Northern Ireland, Manchester United)
Eoghan O’Connell (CB, Republic of Ireland, Glasgow Celtic)
Luke McCullough (CB, Northern Ireland, Doncaster Rovers)
Tommie Hoban (CB, Republic of Ireland, Watford)
Ryan McLaughlin (RB, Northern Ireland, Unattached)
Cyrus Christie (RB, Republic of Ireland, Derby County)
Sean Kavanagh (LB, Republic of Ireland, Fulham)
Dominic Ball (LB, Northern Ireland, Tottenham Hotspur)
Lee Desmond (LB, Republic of Ireland, St Patrick’s Athletic)
Steven Davis* (CM, Northern Ireland, Southampton)
Alan Browne (CM, Republic of Ireland, Preston North End)
Jack Byrne (CM, Republic of Ireland, Blackburn Rovers)
Cameron McGeehan (CM, Northern Ireland, Luton Town)
Callum O’Dowda (LM, Republic of Ireland, Bristol City)
Michael Duffy (LM, Northern Ireland, Dundee – on loan from Glasgow Celtic)
Kenny McEvoy (RM, Republic of Ireland, Unattached)
Shane Long* (Republic of Ireland, Southampton)
Caolan Lavery (Northern Ireland, Sheffield Wednesday)
Shay McCartan (Northern Ireland, Accrington Stanley)
Sean Maguire (Republic of Ireland, Cork City)
A * denotes an overage player.
So the starting XI might look something like this: (4-2-2-2)
McGovern – Kavanagh, McNair, O’Connell,Christie – Davis (c), Byrne – O’Dowda, McCartan – Lavery, Long
I’m not going to delve into the politics here, mainly because I’d like you to keep reading.
The benefits of competing in the Olympics as a cross-border team would go beyond politics, for me: teams like Nigeria, Argentina and Mexico have used Olympic tournaments as a big-tournament breeding ground for their players in the past. It adds an extra tier (under-23) on to the football pyramid, giving players a valuable bridge between under-21 level and the senior team.
Irish underage teams from both associations have never quite mirrored the successes of their senior sides (apart from the odd blip) – the under-23 side could be another part of the fabled ‘player pathway’ administrators are so keen on.
Could it ever work?
Largely because both associations and both sets of fans (for the most part) are relatively content for the status quo.
While occasionally an all-Ireland team is mooted, it has never been proposed to specifically compete in the Olympics.
Yet, should such an idea be proposed, it would inevitably be shot down on both sides of the border.
The combined team would also have to qualify through the under 21 route, something that can’t happen while they are separate nations at international level.
I share a lot of the concerns people have about an all-Ireland team generally – I think the set-up we have, with two separate teams, seems to be working just fine for the most part (at senior level anyway) – but I don’t see how having one united team competing every four years would hurt anyone.