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Northern Exposure to the League of Ireland

On his appointment as the new Northern Ireland manager, Michael O’Neill has made it clear this week that he will be looking to maximise the use of the small player pool available to him. O’Neill will attempt to stop the trickle of players born in the North, some of whom have played under-age football for Northern Ireland, switching their allegiances to Giovanni Trapattoni’s Republic of Ireland team. O’Neill has spoken about tempting former Northern Ireland under 21 international James McClean back to the North after last year he pulled out of a Northern Ireland senior squad saying he wished to play for the Republic of Ireland team.

The issue of players who were born in Northern Ireland declaring themselves available for the Republic is a thorny one. The Irish Football Association (IFA) went all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne to try and prevent FIFA’s ruling on players being born in the North playing for the Republic. It is particularly galling for the IFA to see players who are capped at underage level for them moving to play for the senior Republic of Ireland team. This issue has elements of politics and probably religion wrapped up in it with the singing of God Save the Queen as the anthem played at Windsor Park and the Good Friday Agreement being parts of the debate. A Great Britain and Northern Ireland team will take part in the football tournament at the London 2012 Olympics but the football associations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have not backed the team for fear of jeopardising their separate teams in UEFA and FIFA competitions.

Photo by George Kelly

Having been appointed Northern Ireland manager after successfully winning back-to-back League of Ireland titles with Shamrock Rovers, Michael O’Neill will look to cast his net to include player’s currently plying their trade in the League of Ireland. O’Neill was critical of his predecessor Nigel Worthington for not calling up League of Ireland players to the North’s squad for last summer’s Carling Nations Cup competition held in Dublin. Back then, Alan Mannus was O’Neill’s goalkeeper at Shamrock Rovers. Mannus’ superb form for Rovers in 2011 earned up a move to SPL side St. Johnstone in August but it couldn’t get him a spot in the Northern Ireland squad when he was at Rovers. “I would be disappointed that playing at Shamrock Rovers diminished Alan Mannus’ opportunity to play internationally,” said O’Neill back in July. “I did find it strange that Northern Ireland had six players in the Carling Nations Cup with Irish League experience and then there was the likes of Alan Mannus and James McClean of Derry that have both been in the Northern Ireland system but hadn’t been picked.”

However, as soon as Mannus had left Shamrock Rovers, even though he didn’t play a game for St. Johnstone, he was straight in the Northern Ireland squad. Mannus himself told of how Worthington gave him the impression that he needed to be playing away from the League of Ireland before he would be getting a call up for the North. “When the Northern Ireland manager (Nigel Worthington) spoke to me, he said in his words the fact that I’m not in England or Scotland doesn’t help me,” recalled Mannus last season. “I don’t think they pay too much attention to the League of Ireland. I know that he really wants players to be in England or Scotland. It is a case of even if it is Scottish First Division or League Two in England, they will still choose them ahead of lads in the League of Ireland and the Irish League”.

Shamrock Rovers player Chris Turner may be hoping that his former club boss will be in touch with him about a call up to the senior squad. Turner captained the Northern Ireland u21 team but has yet to get a senior cap. At Rovers this year, the 24 year old won the League of Ireland, the Setanta Sports All-Ireland Cup competition and qualified for the Europa League group stages. Turner’s crucial goal in Rovers’ opening game in Europe ensured the win over Estonian Champions Flora Tallinn setting Rovers on their way in Europe where he played 10 European games. His former team-mate certainly thinks he could do a job for the North. “I don’t necessarily think that the players in the squad are better than those playing in the League of Ireland like Chris Turner,” said Alan Mannus previously. “I’ve seen people come in from the Irish League in the same position in midfield and they weren’t any better than the likes of Chris Turner.”

Turner himself has spoken about the situation of League of Ireland players and the Northern Ireland international squad. “I obviously played the whole way up through from schoolboys up to the u21s but I’ve never been close to getting into the full national team,” said Turner last season of his time with the international set up in Northern Ireland. “I don’t think the league here gets enough recognition. I don’t even know if anybody comes down to watch any of the games. There are a number of players who could play for Northern Ireland like myself, Alan Mannus, Ruaidhri Higgins and a few of the Derry lads last year. There are players in this league more than capable of playing international football.” You would imagine that Michael O’Neill, who will be based in Northern Ireland, will be keeping a greater eye on talent available to him in both the League of Ireland and Irish League than his predecessor.

Photo by Bobby Best

Returning to the recent move of James McClean from Derry City to Sunderland, it is a case in point about the calibre of players in the League of Ireland. McClean made his debut for the Black Cats in their 1-0 win over Manchester City on New Year’s Day and followed it up by scoring two days later in a 4-1 win over Wigan. Subsequently, there have been calls for McClean to be rushed into the Republic of Ireland squad, probably more so now following O’Neill’s words this week about looking to change McClean’s on playing for the North. Turner spoke last season about this strange situation of players suddenly becoming good enough to play international football just because they make a short flight or ferry ride across the Irish Sea. “You just have to look at some of the players who were playing here in the League of Ireland,” said Turner. “Once they get a move, they get called up. They don’t become a better player overnight. They were always a good player whenever they played in this league. Just because you get a move over the water to England or Scotland it doesn’t necessarily make you a better player.”

It will be interesting to see how far O’Neill will go to encourage players to play for Northern Ireland. He spoke this week about asking players who had quit international football to return. Will he look to bring ‘granny rule’ players in who are plying their trade in the SPL or English football? Or maybe bring in a naturalised Northern Ireland man? Possibly Shamrock Rovers star striker Gary Twigg may be eligible and O’Neill knows all about the striker who has scored 66 goals for Rovers in the last three seasons! Whatever he does, O’Neill knows he has a tough task ahead of him as his side faces into qualification for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 in a group including Russia and Portugal. Ensuring he has a squad with as high a number of quality players will certainly help him as he cuts his teeth in international football.

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  1. thegawa
    January 5, 2012 at 23:36

    The Northern Ireland fans were perplexed that Worthington was over looking LOI players, the Mannus situation was laughable especially when Blayney was selected ahead of him.

    It will be interesting to see who out of the current Shamrock side MON has Northern Irish links other than the obvious Chris Turner. Gary Twigg is an interesting one, what I do know however, is that Connor McCormack being born in Daisy Hill Hospital, Newry is eligible so he would be at least one player.

    A nice rounded post which I have retweeted to my followers @thegawa

  2. January 5, 2012 at 23:49

    Hadn’t realised McCormack was eligible until someone else pointed that out this evening. McCormack is a real prospect and O’Neill had no hesitation in throwing the 21 year old into his Shamrock Rovers team as the holding midfielder in a 4-1-4-1 system in Europe last year.

    I think Rovers fans will continue to sing “Twigg of Scotland” rather than “Twigg of Ulster” next season!

    • thegawa
      January 6, 2012 at 03:57

      Is there any evidence to suggest that Twigg is eligible as its new to me?

  3. January 6, 2012 at 09:16

    Living in Newry when not staying in Tallaght and being married to someone from the North is probably the limits of his eligibility – maybe not the strongest grounds.

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