Northern Ireland and northern Irishmen is age-old problem

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill reading his statement about the issue of young players changing international allegiance.

WHEN Brendan Rodgers was appointed Liverpool FC manager, a couple of Manchester United-supporting colleagues tested my knowledge of the Anfield club.

'He said he was the second Northern Irishman to manage Liverpool – who was the other one?', they asked.

I looked puzzled, and said I didn't know who the first was, leading to some mild mockery.

Even when I then suggested that what he'd actually said was that he was 'the second northern Irishman' they were rather sceptical, almost scathing.

However, 'Honest' John McKenna, regarded as the club's first manager, hailed from Glaslough in Monaghan. A northern Irishman then, but not a Northern Irishman.

It's a small difference between upper or lower case but there can be a big difference between a Northern Irishman and a northern Irishman.

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill spelled out on Monday that he supports a player's right to choose, "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."

Indeed, when he was unveiled as NI boss more than six years ago, he said: "If the player makes the decision still to play for the Republic of Ireland, I think we have to respect that. We may not like it and we may not agree with it, but we have to respect it."

His stated concern, with regard to contact from the FAI, is with the age at which players are making that choice, specifically those between 17 and 21.

Again, O'Neill has been consistent on this point, saying in January 2012: "It's important, particularly with younger players, that we don't put them under unnecessary pressure in this situation because that would be unfair on them."

Michael may well be right in his view that many players are immature at that stage of life and shouldn't make an irrevocable decision then.

Yet I don't feel many, if any, need to wait until they turn 21, or even 17, to know whether they regard themselves as Northern Irish or Irish.

Michael talks of eligibility being 'a football issue', but it's much more than that. It's about identity and nationality.

Youngsters may dream of playing international football, but surely they want to do so for the team they're brought up supporting? The one whose jerseys they have worn, whose posters they have had on their bedroom walls.

Besides, purely from a football perspective, delaying the decision until the age of 21 would be problematic for the best young talent.

If they're good enough, bosses on both sides of the border would want to include them in their senior teams, thereby committing them to one or the other. With more competitive matches after the advent of the Uefa Nations League later this year there would be even less wiggle room.

Even if the player isn't good enough for the Republic of Ireland senior team at the age of 20, his future chances could be hampered if he's restricted to the NI U21 side rather than its RoI counterpart.

O'Neill's frustration is understandable. He wants all the best players available to him. He also wants a team that fully represents Northern Ireland.

Knowing Michael, that wouldn't stop him picking 11 Protestants or 11 Catholics or 11 atheists if they were the best.

That's always been his stance. After his 'unveiling', my initial take was this: 'Inclusivity will be the watchword for Michael O'Neill's reign as Northern Ireland manager. The North's new boss aims to pick from as many players as possible, including those who might consider switching allegiance to the Republic.'

Michael can't just pick who he likes, though. As he's acknowledged, the choice is with the players.

In an ideal world players would play for the team that represents where they're from. Yet that depends too: do you view yourself as from 'Northern Ireland' or 'Ireland'?

Anyway, unfortunately it's far from an ideal world here.

Northern Ireland is never going to represent many nationalists while it has a crown on its flag and its anthem is 'God Save The Queen'.

Many outsiders are baffled as to why Northern Ireland has the same anthem as England, while other constituent parts of the United Kingdom Scotland and Wales, have their own songs.

These aren't Michael O'Neill's decisions to make or to change.

Even if Northern Ireland were to change the flag and anthem, many – most? – nationalists would still prefer to support the team that aims to represent all of Ireland.

Still, that's no reason not to make those changes, to symbols that look and sound inclusive.

Equally, there's no point holding on to players who are unwilling or unenthusiastic, even if it's only for a few more years. Indeed NI would be wasting their own time, money, and effort with players who only want to represent the Republic.

By the same token, though, any choice to play for Northern Ireland should be respected, not demeaned or criticised.

There are players who aren't too bothered about politics and/or nationality who may well be content to stick with NI rather than try their luck with the Republic.

Going back to that other great divide mentioned at the start of his column, Michael O'Neill knew when he was appointed that his powers of persuasion would be tested. He was talking about supporters, but his words could apply just as well to players:

"That's personal preference what team you watch: I'm not going to convert a Man United fan into a Liverpool fan overnight. That situation is down to the individual."

Age isn't the issue; choice is.

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