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Video: Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill clarifies comments over 'targeting young Catholic players from the north'

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has accused FAI chiefs of targeting Catholic players from the north

NORTHERN Ireland manager Michael O’Neill has moved to clarify comments that accused Republic of Ireland soccer chiefs of targeting young Catholic players from the north.

Mr O’Neill expressed annoyance that the Football Association of Ireland continues to recruit potential players perceived to be from a nationalist background, in an interview that appeared in the Irish Daily Mail.

“The FAI only ever approach one type of player: Catholic,” he was quoted as saying.

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill described his comments as "very disappointing".

However, in a statement issued today, Michael O’Neill  admitted the Football Association of Ireland "has broken no rules" and that religion should not be part of the debate.

O'Neill, who named his squad for the upcoming South Korea match, said 

"During a recent interview, I was questioned about the issue of eligibility. Contrary to how it was reported, I did not attack the FAI - I merely responded to the questions I was asked.

"For me, eligibility is not and should not be a political issue, nor should it be a religious issue. For me, eligibility is a football issue.

"Recent media reports have sparked much opinion, particularly around the rights of players born in Northern Ireland to be free to choose for whom they wish to play. I have never disputed that right. Nor have I ever been critical of a player for exercising that right.

"The FAI correctly states it has broken no rules in approaching young Northern Ireland players.

"My concerns lie specifically with players aged 17 to 21 in the underage set-ups.

"I've seen a heavy price paid by too many talented young players - players who have transferred their allegiance to a country that ultimately doesn't rate them nor play them, creating an international vacuum for the player that signals a wholly different outcome to the career that they might have had.

"My request, therefore, to the FAI and to any other association is that: that if a young player has chosen to represent Northern Ireland at Under 17, Under 19 or Under 21 level, that he is allowed to develop in these crucial formative years without the responsibility of having to make a decision regarding his international allegiance that is binding for the rest of his career. My request extends to any country, not just the Republic of Ireland.

"Where I am critical of the FAI is the way in which it currently communicates with the IFA over a player who potentially wishes to make a transfer. There is no dialogue with our coaches from their respective counterparts at the FAI besides an email from the FAI's licensing department, requesting information on the player.

"The Irish FA invests thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of pounds in players in our Club NI programme. While it is a player's right to choose to play for the Republic of Ireland at underage level, such a decision means that another young player has missed out on the opportunity to be part of our elite performance pathway and another player in the FAI's system will miss out on selection.

"I have been asking my counterpart at the FAI for a meeting to discuss these issues for more than eight months. I am pleased that he has indicated last week that he is now willing to take me up on that.

"It is clear to me that given the examples Martin (O'Neill - Republic of Ireland manager) used in his press conference, that he has misunderstood the issues that I wish to address. I am not talking about senior players, but those aged 17 to 21 born in Northern Ireland."

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.

Last week, the Northern Ireland manager, who represented Northern Ireland as a player and is also a Catholic, had 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.

 

The statement in full:

"Before I talk about the squad, I'd like to make a statement addressing some of the issues that have been reported in the media recently around player eligibility," he began.

"This will be the last time that I discuss this issue in public as my views are continually misrepresented by sections of the media. I will not be taking any questions other than in relation to the upcoming game against South Korea.

"During a recent interview, I was questioned about the issue of eligibility. Contrary to how it was reported, I did not attack the FAI - I merely responded to the questions I was asked.

"For me, eligibility is not and should not be a political issue, nor should it be a religious issue. For me, eligibility is a football issue.

"Recent media reports have sparked much opinion, particularly around the rights of players born in Northern Ireland to be free to choose for whom they wish to play. I have never disputed that right. Nor have I ever been critical of a player for exercising that right.

"The FAI correctly states it has broken no rules in approaching young Northern Ireland players.

"My concerns lie specifically with players aged 17 to 21 in the underage set-ups.

"I've seen a heavy price paid by too many talented young players - players who have transferred their allegiance to a country that ultimately doesn't rate them nor play them, creating an international vacuum for the player that signals a wholly different outcome to the career that they might have had.

"My request, therefore, to the FAI and to any other association is that: that if a young player has chosen to represent Northern Ireland at Under 17, Under 19 or Under 21 level, that he is allowed to develop in these crucial formative years without the responsibility of having to make a decision regarding his international allegiance that is binding for the rest of his career. My request extends to any country, not just the Republic of Ireland.

"Where I am critical of the FAI is the way in which it currently communicates with the IFA over a player who potentially wishes to make a transfer. There is no dialogue with our coaches from their respective counterparts at the FAI besides an email from the FAI's licensing department, requesting information on the player.

"The Irish FA invests thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of pounds in players in our Club NI programme. While it is a player's right to choose to play for the Republic of Ireland at underage level, such a decision means that another young player has missed out on the opportunity to be part of our elite performance pathway and another player in the FAI's system will miss out on selection.

"I have been asking my counterpart at the FAI for a meeting to discuss these issues for more than eight months. I am pleased that he has indicated last week that he is now willing to take me up on that.

"It is clear to me that given the examples Martin (O'Neill - Republic of Ireland manager) used in his press conference, that he has misunderstood the issues that I wish to address. I am not talking about senior players, but those aged 17 to 21 born in Northern Ireland.

"To reiterate, elibility is a football issue. We and the FAI have a responsibility to invest in and nurture talent on both sides of the border. With that comes a duty and an obligation to protect those young talents in their most formative and vulnerable years.

"We appeal for transparency and fairness at underage level. We respect that young players who represent Northern Ireland at underage level have the right to choose to play for the Republic of Ireland. What we are asking for is that such a significant decision, one that could affect their entire career, is neither influenced nor made until that player reaches senior age and is made at a time which is in the player's best interest."

 

 

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