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It's time the IFA sang a new song as player eligibility rows rumble on

Rory and Ronan Hale, who are playing for English League clubs Aston Villa and Birmingham, have both declared for the Republic of Ireland Picture: Matt Bohill

I MET Brian Kerr at Donegal Celtic Football Club in August 2011. His Faroe Islands team were using the Suffolk Road facilities as preparation for their Euro 2012 Qualifier with Northern Ireland at Windsor Park.

Around that time, James McClean had declared for the Republic of Ireland after representing the north at underage level.

It was yet another eligibility row in a long list of familiar IFA-FAI spats.

Kerr, a former Republic of Ireland manager, actually sided with the northern association.

He said: "I know some of the northern players have an identity with the Republic because of the communities they're living in. I think over time that can change.

"But I don't think the Republic should be taking advantage of the Belfast Agreement to the extent they're using it in football as a way of recruiting players.

"I've always been someone who's fought for the small man and tried to see things in a fair-minded way," said the Drimnagh native.

"Even when I was manager of the Republic's teams, we weren't busy in that way in terms of selecting players from outside.

"We did, in fact, tell some players that they would be better off not playing for us because they were unlikely to get to the top level. So I think that was only fair.”

Kerr duly incurred the wrath of northern nationalism for sticking up for the IFA.

Every now and then a northern player declares for the south; somebody complains and the media dusts off old headlines.

Last week, it was Northern Ireland senior international manager Michael O’Neill who let rip.

He hit a raw nerve by calling the FAI “morally poor” after another couple of Derry natives – Jordan McAneff and Josh Daniels - opted to play for the Republic of Ireland.

Jordan’s elder brother Aaron did likewise last year with still two U21 European qualification games still to play.

You can understand O’Neill’s frustration at losing talented young players to the south after IFA coaches have invested in them.

But stamping your feet in frustration hasn’t got the IFA anywhere.

To use a football analogy, it’s like playing long ball tactics and being frustrated by the outcome.

Put simply, the IFA need better tactics.

They should be asking themselves why so many young Catholic players don’t want to play for the north.

Indeed, the IFA would be better served if they carried out in-depth surveys/interviews with all the so-called ‘defectors’ to find out where they, as an association, are going wrong.

Moreover, blaming the FAI for 'poaching' northern-born players is not a fair analysis of the situation.

Take Rory Hale as a case-study. Rory is close to making a first team breakthrough at Aston Villa and has represented Northern Ireland at underage level from U16.

In September 2015 he rejected any further call-ups to the north’s U21 squad because he wanted to play for the Republic.

On Wednesday, he earned his first call-up to the Republic’s U21s for their upcoming Euro qualifier against Kosovo.

Rory wasn’t ‘poached’ by the FAI. He contacted the FAI about switching his allegiance.

Speaking to the Irish News this week, Rory said: “I made this decision myself. I grew up in north Belfast, I’m Irish, my family is Irish and I want to play for Ireland.”

With parental guidance, Rory represented the north for several years until, he said: “I was old enough to make my own decision - and I made it.”

He made roughly 15 competitive appearances for the north but started only “four or five games”.

He felt he deserved more game-time, but Rory's heart always lay with the south.

In his broadside last weekend, O’Neill scoffed at players who insisted it was always their “dream” to play for the Republic.

Rory said: “I’ve always been a Republic fan. My father took me to all the games when I was a kid. Friendly matches as well, we went to watch all the games.

“I still watch them now. I get my Ireland top on and watch them. I was on holiday during the Euros and I had my top on to watch their games.”

Rory’s younger brother Ronan Hale has been cutting a dash at Birmingham City for the last couple of seasons.

You should see this kid play. Google him and watch this incredible goal-scoring talent.

Despite hitting over 40 goals for Birmingham City’s youth team in his first season, he was never called up for the north to play in a competitive game.

It begs questions of the IFA's scouting network that a prolific goalscoring talent like Ronan Hale wasn't utilised.

Being put on stand-by at U19 level was the closest the striker got to featuring in a competitive game for Northern Ireland.

Now he's flourishing for the Republic.

“Ronan was over in Birmingham and scoring goals and Irish League players were getting called up ahead of him. That baffles me,” said Rory.

Rory had to wait for over a year before receiving international clearance from the IFA to play for the south.

Rather than delaying his move to the Republic, it would have been perhaps more prudent of the IFA to listen to the reasons why Rory and Ronan Hale – two hugely talented young footballers from Belfast - are not playing for the north.

The IFA must ask itself is it doing enough to encourage young catholic/nationalist players to remain with the north because throwing insults southwards is a waste of time.

And is it not time to replace God Save The Queen with a different, more unifying anthem?

Of course, while the IFA can certainly do more on a civic level, the football authorities are not helped by political unionism’s continual failure to make the north a viable, functioning state.

During Euro 2016, former First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster refused to attend the Republic of Ireland's games - even though Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness attended Northern Ireland's games - because she wasn't interested in "gesture politics".

But in a deeply divided society, it's exactly these kinds of gestures which carry so much symbolic importance.

The trickle-down effect of such mean-spiritedness is felt in nationalist areas where gifted young players like the Hale brothers come from.

In 2011, Brian Kerr put his faith in things changing in the north. But not enough has changed.

It's the same tired, old refrain from the north.

It's time the football authorities up here stopped looking out the window for someone to blame and started looking in the mirror for answers.

That's always a good starting point when you want to change things.

 

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