Republic manager Martin O'Neill hits out at 'very disappointing' remarks by Northern Ireland counterpart

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill has said that he has "never chosen a player on anything other than merit". Picture by Nick Potts/PA Wire

REPUBLIC of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill has hit back at his Northern Ireland counterpart's claim that Irish football chiefs are targeting northern Catholics to change allegiance, describing his comments as "very disappointing".

In an interview earlier this week Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill said that the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) "only ever approach one type of player: Catholic".

Under FIFA rules anyone born in Northern Ireland can opt to play for either side.

Several players, including Premiership duo James McClean and Shane Duffy, who have turned out for Northern Ireland at youth level in recent years have gone on to switch allegiance to the Republic at senior level.

The Northern Ireland manager, who represented the team as a player and is also a Catholic, said: "I hope that Martin and I can get some sort of gentleman's agreement whereby if a young boy has represented Northern Ireland at aged 17 to 21, the FAI don't ask him to change."

However, Martin O'Neill, who is from Co Derry and captained Northern Ireland as a player, said: "To actually talk about religion and bring religion into it - it's very disappointing.

"What I have a problem with was the unexpected nature of the comments."

The Republic boss said that he has "never chosen a player on anything other than merit" and that ultimately "it is the player's choice".

"I have had a conversation with him since. He has admitted that I have not taken a senior player. In fact, it's quite the opposite as he has taken Alex Bruce.

"I have no problems having a conversation about underage level, if that's the case," he added.

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