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Northern Exposure to the League of Ireland

January 5, 2012 4 comments

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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Turner and Hoops

October 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Shamrock Rovers have scored some incredible goals on their European odyssey this season. There was Gary McCabe’s goal following his mazy run in the 1-1 draw in Tallaght Stadium against Partizan and away in Belgrade there was Pat Sullivan’s amazing volley along with Stephen O’Donnell’s pressure penalty. But none of these goals would have happened without Chris Turner’s tap in goal that he scored in Rovers’ first European game back in July. Turner’s goal in Tallaght against Flora Tallinn in the Champions League qualifiers proved to be the only goal of the tie and changed the complexion of Rovers’ season. It guaranteed the Hoops progression in Europe with Rovers going on to become the first Irish side to qualify for the group stages of a major European competition.

The scorer of the goal against Tallinn Chris Turner knows the significance of that goal even if he can joke about its perceived lack of quality. “It wasn’t the prettiest of goals but it was obviously a very important goal for the club!” said Turner of the goal that came just after Rovers goalkeeper Alan Mannus had saved a penalty from Flora. “Everyone was delighted we got the goal after Al got the penalty save. It was just a good time to get it and it lifted everybody going 1-0 up.” It was Ronan Finn’s cross that caused the confusion in the Flora box and with Gary Twigg and Billy Dennehy just missing out on getting the decisive touch, the ball fell to Turner who made no mistake tapping it home from two yards. “I will take tap ins all day! It is always nice to get on the score sheet.”

In the away leg in Estonia, in a game they dominated, Rovers’ positive attitude was rewarded, not with another win, but with the required 0-0 result that set up a trip to Copenhagen in the next round. However, having been shown a yellow card in both matches against the Estonian Champions, it did mean Turner had to sit out the first leg in Denmark. “It was obviously not nice to miss the Copenhagen game,” said the 24 year old. “It was a silly yellow card as I didn’t really think it was deserved. It was disappointing that way but the lads were brilliant out in Copenhagen and did very well to keep the score 1-0 with a very disciplined performance.”

Turner returned for the home leg and was central to the pivotal moment in the game. The Hoops had Copenhagen under real pressure in the first half and the Ulsterman was a whisker away from putting the home side all square on aggregate. “It was a good to start the game when we came back to Tallaght,” recalled Turner. “I saw the ball come into the box from Enda [Stevens] and I just tried to get my head on the end of it. I think I’ve caught it too well and it’s hit the bar. I like arriving in the box and getting on the end of them. It is a part of my game that is quite good. It obviously could have been a different story if it had gone in. But then they got a goal just before half time which killed us a bit as it meant we needed to get three goals which was a massive ask against a team of that quality.”

The elimination by Copenhagen from the Champions League meant Rovers’ next European game was in the Europa League Playoff against Serbian champions Partizan. Having drawn the home leg 1-1, thanks to that superb goal from Gary McCabe, the players had to dig deep in the second leg that went to extra time on a hot and sultry night in the Serbian capital. How did Turner find playing for 120 minutes in that heat in Belgrade? “It was tough but we knew that the rewards at the end of it were enormous. You don’t really think of how tired you are in the game really. You are just thinking that this is going to be unbelievable if we can pull this off and thankfully we did. It was amazing. Partizan had quality all over the pitch. They had glorious chances that they missed and that we just capitalised on. We knew we would get chances in the game and thankfully they went in for us.”

In between all these European battles, the Hoops have been fighting on the home front as well trying to retain their Airtricity League title. The League of Ireland champions had to do without Turner’s services at the start of August due to his controversial three-match suspension. Turner had been playing with charges of racism over his head following the home match against Derry City. He was of course cleared of these charges as there was no evidence of such an occurrence. However, the player did receive a ban under a different rule breach for making offensive comments towards Derry player Eamon Zayed, something that Turner is still a bit puzzled by. “At the end of the day I didn’t say anything racist to him whatsoever,” Turner categorically stated. “I didn’t think there was any real proof or evidence to ban me. If somebody makes a claim against you and there is nothing to back it up, I don’t understand how you can get banned. Anybody can go out of their way and say that somebody said something and you just get a three match ban for nothing. It was a bit bemusing. I just had to bite my tongue and get on with it, put my head down and see the three games out. I just wanted to get back into the team and get some game time under my belt and thankfully I’ve been able to do that over the last few weeks and hopefully that will continue over the rest of the year.”

Fitting in the European, League and domestic cup games has meant lots of football for the Rovers squad. The players last week has their longest break in over a month with a six day turnaround between their FAI Cup defeat in Sligo and last Sunday’s comprehensive 5-2 home win over Bray. Michael O’Neill gave his squad a three-day break from training that allowed Turner to head to Scotland to see his family. “I was over seeing my missus and my wee boy. She is from Scotland so she stays over there with her family. It was hard for her being over here because my family is up north so she is back in Scotland now. I go back every time I get a chance, it is always last minute but there is nothing much really that I can do about it so I just get on with it. I think it was a good time for us to get a few days off as we had a lot of games in a row with Europe and stuff. It is the only time we could really get a few days off with the game on the Sunday.”

In order to cope with all the fixtures, Manager Michael O’Neill has been using his full squad and bolstered it by bringing in the experienced Rohan Ricketts and Jim Patterson. This was in addition to holding onto the services of Enda Stevens for the rest of this season before he makes the move to Aston Villa in January. “They’ve come in and freshened things up and the competition for places will be as fierce as ever,” said Turner of the arrival of Patterson and Ricketts (who scored his debut goal for the Hoops last Sunday). “It is massive for us that Enda can stay till the end of the year. He is a quality player and it was only a matter of time before he got his move. I’m delighted for him. He deserves it. I’ve no doubt that he will go over to England, settle in well and established himself in the Premier League.”

The last two home games have been on a Sunday afternoon as the Hoops juggle European and League games. “As for all the games, we have a big squad and we have to use it,” explained Turner. “All these games are because we are doing well. You don’t want to be playing only 36 games a year because you aren’t in any of the other competitions. 50 and 60 games a year is better when you are in all these competitions and challenging for them. I do know that there are a lot of games. I don’t really think it is fair on teams doing well in all these competitions that there is a fixture pile up or a backlog of games that they have to catch up on. I don’t think that is right but I don’t know how to sort it out.”

Derry, Rovers and Sligo have being switching around positions at the top of the league over the past month as the season enters its final phase. Turner unsurprisingly is enjoying the tussle at the top. “You have to enjoy it or you shouldn’t be there. After the Bray game, I think we’ve got six games left, four at home and two away. Every game is going to be a cup final. We’ve got to play every game like it is a league decider and that is what we are going to do to bring the title back here for another season.”

Despite all the positive publicity and experienced being gained with Shamrock Rovers competing in the Europa League, it is clear in Turner’s mind what the priority is for the Hoops over the next month beginning this afternoon with the game against Drogheda United. “The main thing is the league. We want the league as it is our bread and butter and we have to win it to get into the Champions League next year. The league is the most important thing. I think if we don’t win it everyone in the squad will see it as a bit of a failure and as being disappointing. We’ve done so well in Europe and won the Setanta Cup but the league is the main thing; that is the big one. That is the one we want. We feel as a squad and as a team that we can win every game. We never go into a game thinking that we can win it. We approach every game the same and we prepare for every game the same. We want to go out and win. The manager has brought the players in because he thinks everyone is a winner. Hopefully we can be winners and can be champions at the end of the year.”

Published in Hoops Scene 19 (October 2011 – Shamrock Rovers v Drogheda United/Bohemians)