Patriotism plays a bigger role in players' decisions to go south than Michael O'Neill realises

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill and Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill together at the Aviva in Dublin. The Ireland manager has said it's the player's choice to move south 

THE PR departments of the FAI and IFA have had smoother times.

In January, Martin O’Neill tried to put manners on RTE journalist Tony O’Donoghue and failed miserably.

Earlier this week, Michael O’Neill accused the FAI of pinching northern-born Catholic players and wanted a gentleman’s agreement with his namesake to basically stop the practice.

I felt a certain sympathy for the respective PR offices who must have rolled their eyes and threw their arms to the heavens.

The two O’Neills are definitely their own men, which also makes them a PR department’s worst nightmare.

While players are media-trained to within an inch of their lives, it’s the managers you have to keep tabs on – particularly on this cantankerous island.

Michael O’Neill has been angry for a while now about the perceived poaching of northern resources.

Last year, he described the FAI as “morally poor” for its continued pursuit of some of Northern Ireland’s youth players.

In an interview with the Irish Daily Mail’s Philip Quinn, the Northern Ireland boss was even more forthright going significantly further than the previous “morally poor” charge.

How far the Ballymena man actually went is open to debate as there seemed to be some behind-the-scenes negotiations between the IFA and the newspaper because the publication of the interview was delayed by 24 hours.

Some people might be surprised to learn that Michael O’Neill’s stance over the trickle of young northern players changing allegiances has found a sympathetic ear in some parts of the south.

Former Ireland manager Brian Kerr has been a fierce critic of how the FAI conduct their scouting business in the north and fully backs Michael O’Neill’s views and shares in his frustration.

The Drimnagh man, who has family links in Ardoyne in north Belfast, feels that many of the players recruited from the north would be better staying put where they would at least stand a better chance of having an international career, rather than being a footnote or an unused sub with the Republic of Ireland.

“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,” Kerr told me in 2011.

“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.”

There are a couple of flaws in Kerr’s observations.

Nothing has changed “over time”. Secondly, one person’s interpretation of “taking advantage” of the Belfast Agreement is another person’s absolute right to choose.

It conjures the impression that all these players are completely passive in the north-south transfer process.

While acknowledging a player’s “identity with the Republic of Ireland”, Kerr still under-estimates it.

Michael O’Neill makes the same errors.

The construction of O’Neill’s argument relies heavily on painting the FAI as the aggressors – but it is too one-dimensional and is devoid of any self reflection.

Northern Ireland is not some happy-go-lucky Scandinavian social democracy with undisputed borders.

It remains a deeply divided place with divided loyalties.

Kerr and Michael O’Neill are right insofar as the northern players that have their heads turned by the FAI stand a better chance of playing more football for Northern Ireland than they do with the Republic of Ireland.

But if the IFA and O’Neill ever cared to ask the players who opted to play for the south, they would learn that it’s not about having an international career with any international team.

It’s about having an international career with the country you feel allegiance and an emotional attachment to.

For these youth players, they obviously hadn't built up a strong enough affinity with Northern Ireland to remain there.

O’Neill is naturally frustrated and angry at the talent drain – who wouldn’t be in his shoes - but trying to completely eliminate patriotism from the equation is foolhardy.

Rory Hale, who cut ties with the north to play for the south last year, broke the debate down for slow learners.

“I grew up in north Belfast,” he said. “I’m Irish, my family is Irish and I want to play for Ireland. I’ve always been an Ireland fan.”

If you asked Rory Hale would he rather get game-time with Northern Ireland or be on the bench with the Republic, he would choose the latter.

Michael O’Neill has proved himself as a manager. He has single-handedly revolutionised Northern Ireland's fortunes on the world stage.

He deserves every accolade that comes his way for transforming a rag-order outfit into a team that consistently punches above its weight.

He could manage in the English Premiership without question.

But, at a time when Northern Ireland are enjoying unprecedented success, they still can’t stop the trickle/stream of players wanting to play for the south.

Club NI, the IFA’s elite programme, does great work but we don’t hear enough about it.

And they employ some of the best coaches around.

But more charm offensives on behalf of the IFA towards nationalist areas are required.

They need to work harder in getting their brand out there – to community groups, to schools, to youth clubs.

In deciding against the playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ prior to the 2013 Irish Cup final between Glentoran and Cliftonville, the IFA said it was in the interests of fostering a “politically neutral environment”.

Logic therefore dictates that the playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ before Northern Ireland games is a stumbling block to a “politically neutral environment” and retaining young Catholic players.

It’s true the DUP’s cack-handed approach to reconciliation on this island doesn't help the situation - but that's exactly when civic society needs to be more energetic and do more.

Crying about the FAI's recruitment policy in the north will get O'Neill no-where. The problem runs a little deeper than that...

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