Republic boss O’Neill hits back over ‘Catholic’ remarks

Michael O'Neill at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park in Belfast.'Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Michael O'Neill at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park in Belfast.'Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill has hit back at Michael O’Neill for speaking out over FAI approaches to Catholic players born north of the border.

The Northern Ireland boss said earlier this week that the international football authorities in the Republic were targeting young players from a nationalist background only in the hope they would switch allegiance away from Northern Ireland.

“The FAI only ever approach one type of player: Catholic,” Michael O’Neill told the Irish Daily Mail.

“I don’t have a problem with [Londonderry-born] James McClean. He was 22 years of age, he knew what he wanted. I have a problem when it’s a 16, 17 or 18-year-old having to make a decision on his international future.

“I can list you 10 players who have made that decision and have never represented the Republic.”

McClean, Darron Gibson and Shane Duffy all represented Northern Ireland at junior level before making their senior debuts for the Republic.

Michael O’Neill, who is the second Ulster-born Catholic to manage the national side after Peter Doherty in the 1950s, also said he would be seeking a meeting with his counterpart in the Republic in the hope of agreeing an upper age limit for approaches.

The comments sparked an angry backlash from Republic of Ireland supporters, and on Thursday Martin O’Neill questioned why religion had been brought in to commentary around player selection.

At a press conference to announce the Republic squad for the friendly match against Turkey later this month O’Neill, who made 64 appearances for Northern Ireland, said he had a problem with the “unexpected nature” of the comments.

He said: “To actually talk about religion and bring religion into it – it’s very disappointing.”

“I think Michael has admitted this...I haven’t even taken a player away from him at senior level. I’ve no problem having a discussion.”

Asked to comment on the prospect of a suggested “gentlemen’s agreement” around an upper age limit for making approaches to players, Martin O’Neill said he had met the NI boss on a number of occasions and there was never any suggestion of problems needing addressed.

“Funnily enough I did meet him at a game quite recently, we were watching Fulham play. We had a very convivial conversation and he never mentioned these particular points. I wish he had have done. It came as a surprise. I’ve had a conversation with him since. He’s admitted I’ve not taken a senior player from him. Quite the opposite. He’s taken Alex Bruce during my time here. I’ve not taken a senior player off him at all.”

Martin O’Neill added: “I have no problems having a conversation about underage level, if that’s the case. The most important thing here is that I have never chosen a player on anything other than merit and this is really, really important – it is down to the player.”

Sinn Fein’s Raymond McCartney has called on the Northern Ireland manager to withdraw the remarks he branded “divisive and unnecessary”.