Despite all the success Northern Ireland’s footballers have enjoyed under manager Michael O’Neill in recent years, one cloud has never been far from the horizon.
O’Neill led the team to the European Championships in 2016, our first appearance at a major tournament since 1986, and then to the very brink of qualification for this summer’s World Cup in Russia.
However, that has not stopped the Republic of Ireland’s football governing body, the FAI, from trying to poach players born north of the border.
Quite a few Northern Ireland-born players have chosen to play for the Republic, notably James McClean of West Bromwich Albion and the former Manchester Utd midfielder Darron Gibson.
But now Michael O’Neill has made a disturbing claim about the tactics employed by the football authorities in the south.
The FAI are continuing to target players born here but according to O’Neill, their overtures are limited to players who they believe are from a Catholic/nationalist background.
O’Neill made his claim in a newspaper interview and it was a commendably brave and bold step to take.
It is wrong and underhand for a football governing body to exploit the political situation on this island for its own ends. If a mature Northern Ireland-born player makes his own decision to play for the Republic when the rules allow it, then that is above board even if we don’t happen to like it. But it is another thing altogether when the Republic’s authorities watch emerging Catholic teenagers from north of the border starring for our under-age teams and attempt to poach them before they are able to make a fully-informed decision about their futures.
Michael O’Neill is right to seek a meeting with his Republic counterpart Martin O’Neill. Hopefully Martin, a former NI international himself, will be able to put his employers in their place and help put a stop to their unethical practices.