Football/Soccer

'I'm an Irish person - I want to play for the Republic of Ireland. It's that simple' - Mark Sykes

Oxford United's Mark Sykes (left) hopes to win a place in the Republic of Ireland senior squad after declaring for them last August

A COUPLE of weeks into the new season and with international managers all around Europe drawing up their squads for the first rounds of the UEFA Nations League, Mark Sykes announced his decision to head south.

Another 'defection'. Another bombshell. More moral outrage. History repeating itself.

Frustration reached boiling point again at Irish FA headquarters - and sectarian bile spewed from the faceless keyboard warriors on social media.

Sykes thought to himself: it’s never like this when a southern player heads north.

The first whiff of Sykes declaring for the Republic of Ireland was enough for a BBC crew to decamp to Windsor Park to break the news that the Northern Ireland U21 midfielder was leaving.

The day after - August 24 2020 - Sykes released a statement through his club Oxford United explaining why his heart lay with the Republic.

Northern Ireland U21 boss Ian Baraclough had only recently been promoted to the senior job.

The new Northern Ireland manager never saw the news coming.

Sykes had emerged as one of Baraclough’s key players with the U21s.

They'd amassed an impressive 20 points in their qualification group for the 2019 Euro finals, but narrowly missed out on one of the play-off berths.

In their final qualifier, Sykes grabbed the winning goal to see off Slovakia at Windsor – but Portugal’s 3-1 win over Bosnia in another group on the same night saw the north eliminated.

Nevertheless, it was only a matter of time before Sykes would win his first senior international cap.

In fact, the Ormeau Road man was to be named in Baraclough’s first squad for upcoming Nations League games against and Romania and Norway in September.

Like Baraclough, Stephen Kenny had moved up from the U21s to take the top job in the south and announced his first senior squad to the media at JACC Headquarters at Parkway Business Centre on the outskirts of Dublin on the day the news broke.

“It’s something that’s only in its infancy,” Kenny said of Sykes’s decision to declare for the south.

“It’s all happened relatively quickly. I don’t want to say too much about it, only that Mark is someone who has expressed an interest in playing for Ireland and obviously he is a fluent Irish speaker and he has had a good season with Oxford, and there’s a capacity for improvement there because it’s his first season in professional football.

“We’ll see how that one progresses. It can take a long time for these things to happen; it can take six months and so he won’t be involved in the immediate squad or in the next few games.”

Baraclough, meanwhile, couldn’t disguise his disappointment at losing Sykes before he’d even taken charge of his first game.

“The conversation that developed was certainly not one that I was expecting, and one of big disappointment, really,” Baraclough said.

Baraclough's feelings were entirely understandable.

Sykes was a shoo-in for Northern Ireland - but not necessarily for the Republic.

In fact, as Kenny intimated, a senior call-up for Sykes was still some way off.

That scenario tells you all you need to know about the motivations of the player.

Simply playing international football wasn’t enough. It can never be enough.

It is playing where your heart tells you, or not playing at all.

Put bluntly, he’d rather wait for a call-up with the Republic of Ireland that may never come rather than rack up 20 senior caps with Northern Ireland.

Sykes is in his second season as a full-time professional footballer and is currently clocking up appearances for mid-table League One club Oxford United.

He became a father – to Baby Rémy – last July and his partner, Courtney, got home to see her family last week for the first time in a year.

Lockdown aside, life has been good to Sykes.

He was suspended for yesterday’s 2-1 home defeat to Accrington Stanley after being sent off in Oxford’s 3-1 loss to Sunderland at the weekend.

Stephen Kenny’s senior team have played 11 games since the start of the season but still no sign of Sykes.

He’ll do all he can at Oxford and hope the call comes.

It was noted that Sykes hadn’t played a competitive senior international game for the north.

Away from the public glare, conversations took place and Sykes expressed a keen interest in playing for the south, a team he's supported all his life.

Breaking the news to Baraclough wasn’t the easiest phone call he's ever made.

“It was really difficult," he says.

"I said: ‘I’m going to change allegiances. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do.’

“I’d obviously known Ian for a little while with the U21s. I think it was the most successful U21 team ever.

“I got an email that I was in the squad [for Northern Ireland's Nations League games against Romania and Norway].

“When I spoke to Ian on the phone he said: ‘Do you think the Republic of Ireland can guarantee you 70 or 80 caps?’

“And I was thinking: ‘Is that what you can guarantee me?’

“I hadn’t been guaranteed anything.

“I knew Northern Ireland was, not easier [to make the breakthrough], but I was already in the door.

“But I’ve always wanted to represent Republic of Ireland and I knew it was a tougher pathway.

“I was never asked to represent the Republic of Ireland at any age level,” he adds. “It never came up. I’ve never had anything against Northern Ireland and I’ve said that openly. I really, really enjoyed what I did there.

"It was just the opportunity of representing the Republic of Ireland at senior level. It was something I’d love to do and I know if it happened it would be my proudest moment in football.

“To be fair to Stephen Kenny, he said: ‘Listen, I’m not going to make you any false promises that you’re going to be in the squad for this or that match.’

Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny has yet to pick Mark Sykes since taking the senior reins

The social media backlash of Sykes’s ‘defection’ came as no surprise.

He deleted his Facebook account and while a lot of what was written about him was water off a duck’s back, his partner, family and friends were exposed to its more jagged edges.

His Irishness has always been hugely important to him. He attended Irish medium primary school Scoil an Droichid on the Ormeau Road before studying Irish at St Mary’s, Grammar on the Glen Road.

Since his school days he’s lost some of his native tongue but his two sisters are fluent and his father, also Mark, speaks a bit of Irish.

“It was obviously something that was important to me growing up. Even in the house we would have spoken a bit of Irish, not always, but even now my family’s kids would use Irish.

“Over here [in England] I don’t use it as I might as well be speaking Chinese to people! If I’m back home and someone is speaking Irish, I’ll speak it.

“I told Ian it was nothing to do with religion - as my partner is Protestant. At the end of the day, I see myself as an Irish person and the right thing for me to do was to represent Republic of Ireland. It’s that simple.

“Whenever someone switched back from Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland they didn’t get half the backlash that I did. People will pick and choose when they say things but that’s just the way life is. It doesn’t bother me.”

In the early years, Sykes played for local club Rosario YC in the South Belfast League and recalls some great duels with rivals Aquinas before being discovered by Glenavon at 15, a club renowned for promoting young players.

“Mark was a great kid,” says Glenavon boss Gary Hamilton. “Never did I have any problems with him. He was outstanding for us, hence the reason why he got his move to England. He’s very, very similar to Gavin Whyte - an exciting player who makes things happen.

“One of the criticisms before his last season with us was his goals return. But then he scored 10 or 11 before he left us. I still think he’s got time and the ability to be a lower Premier League player as long as he gets more goals because that’s the type of player he is.”

He spent five fruitful years at Mourneview Park but only broke into the Northern Ireland set-up at the U18 schoolboys level.

“My age group was the 97’s and the amount of people born in that age group and played in England at 15 or 16 was high. I openly admit that I wasn’t one of the better players when I was younger.

“The only time I was involved with Northern Ireland was the 18s schoolboys, and that was boys who still played in Northern Ireland and weren’t playing in England.

“I played a year up. There were a lot of boys playing in England and I was playing in the Irish League, I was getting better and stronger. The Irish League was a great platform for me.

“It wasn't like I was with Northern Ireland at 12 or 13. I played a few games at U19s but the 21s was my breakthrough in a way and I felt one of the better players in the team.”

Having carved out a reputation for being one of the most exciting players in the Irish Premiership, he got his cross-channel move to Oxford in January 2019.

He made an immediate impression at the Kassam Stadium and scored at Wembley in the play-offs as Oxford narrowly missed out on promotion to the Championship.

He started 10 of the first 13 games of this season before falling out of favour around November time. But he’s worked hard to win back his place in Karl Robinson’s team.

He's keen to point out he never had any bad experiences with Northern Ireland; quite the opposite in fact.

“I never had any problems during my time with Northern Ireland – even during the anthem,” Sykes says.

“I would never have sung it but I never disrespected it. The message at the time was everybody links arms and you look straight ahead. If you want to sing it, you sing it, and if you don’t, you don’t.

“At the end of the day, you were going out to play football. All I was interested in was performing well. It didn’t bother me if I was linking arms with someone who was singing the anthem, not in the slightest. You’d let yourself down if things like that got to you.”

He was disappointed not to see game-time when he was called up for a senior friendly match against Luxembourg in September 2019.

Michael O’Neill made six substitutions on the night. Sykes’s U21 team-mates Liam Donnelly and Shane Lavery were thrust from the bench and Jordan Thompson started, while young Ethan Galbraith also got minutes.

But it was a disappointment he easily overcame.

“I know the U21s is a development age,” he says. “I don’t know if this is just me as a person but whenever we were winning big games I was happy but I never thought it was the pinnacle.

“But when I had the thought of actually representing the Republic of Ireland, I felt like, ‘that’s magical’, just watching the games over the years and following them.

“Even now, I still think about it. I’ve always said if I’m not playing well at Oxford I don’t see myself getting into the Republic team because they’re littered with players playing at a higher level than me. But if I do get there, it’ll be breathtaking.”

Sykes was invited to train with the Irish senior squad prior to the England friendly back in November and was taken aback by how quiet Stephen Kenny spoke to the players at Barnet during the sessions.

The Ireland squad are planning an end of season camp in Spain where they will play Hungary and Andorra. If Sykes can keep turning heads at Oxford and help push them into play-off contention, the Spanish camp might just be his opportunity.

“I’ve no regrets at all,” Sykes says. “I made the decision because this is what I want to do. If I was to stay with Northern Ireland would I have been happy with my decision? Probably not because I want to represent the south.”

For Mark Sykes, it's not a matter of time will tell whether he made the right choice or not.

He's allowed his heart to rule his head.

In doing so, he's already made the right decision.

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Football/Soccer