Monsieur Salut writes: it began, so far as Salut! Sunderland was concerned, as a straightforward defence of James McClean’s decision to make himself available for Republic of Ireland selection and not Northern Ireland. It provoked the longest and most animated discussion thread in months. As a gesture of goodwill, I have removed an anecdote from the original article; it dealt with lowlife sectarianism but although the incident occurred at Windsor Park, home of NI football, it concerned a club, not international, game. Otherwise, I stand by the thrust of my article. But I did invite Andrew Rodgers, easily the most rational of my critics from the other side of the Irish Sea, to set out his own views …
As many Northern Ireland supporters will relate to, it is more than often the case that when reading an article regarding the GAWA (the collective name often associated with our supporters) or our team, whether online or in print, the underlying message is a picture of negativity.
Whether it be stories of our supporters singing sectarian songs, our former players being forced off social media sites, a call for an all conquering All-Ireland team to be formed or my personal favourite, a former media personality criticising us due to him not being offered “any kind of greeting by our supporters”, who also failed to “engage in a bit of craic” with him when attending Windsor Park (I kid you not on the last point), the portrayal is usually not good.
Therefore, it was most welcoming when I opened my inbox to find mail from M Salut asking if I would like to contribute to his site and offer the views of a Northern Ireland football fanatic (my wife’s words, not mine).
My immediate thoughts were as to why any Sunderland fan would have even a passing interest into the views of a fan supporting a neighbouring country that has, let’s face it, hardly set the world on fire of late.
Perhaps they don’t; however, if they are anyway like myself, once they know the topic is football they will automatically be drawn in, no matter which aspect of the game is being discussed.
The Northern Ireland – Sunderland Connection
As a youngster, my earliest introduction to NI-Sunderland connections came during a local end-of-season five-a-aside competition, when one of the most talented teams competing were named Roker Roar.
On questioning the team’s name, I soon learnt that a number of Northern Ireland legends, such as Billy Bingham, Johnny Crossan and Jimmy Nicholl, had adorned the famous shirts of both teams in the past.
They of course have been joined of late by the likes of Phil Gray, George McCartney, Jonny Evans (on loan), our messiah Sir David Healy and obviously Martin O’Neill, one of my personal heroes, who is now of course manager of the Black Cats.
More recently however, another player has been getting all the headlines for his on the field antics, and, unfortunately, off it as well.
The player in question is of course James McClean. A 23-year-old, who less than a year ago was only preparing to sign for Sunderland AFC. and noting how honoured he was to be getting called up to the Northern Ireland senior squad for their forthcoming qualifier against the Faroe Islands..
As the saying goes, what a difference a year makes.
One minute running down the wing at the Brandywell, to doing the same at the Stadium of Light the next. One summer sitting in the Creggan wondering what to do with his time, the next at the European Championships, inside wonderful stadiums and ready to dazzle onlookers with his skills on the pitch.
Only McClean was not waiting to take to the field adorning the kit of the country of his birth and the one he had worn previously as a youth, rather it was that of their near neighbour, the Republic of Ireland.
And it was on this very topic, the switching of allegiances in international football that first drew M Salut’s site to my attention, following his article entitled “Shades of green: Northern Ireland should respect McClean’s Republic of Ireland choice”. An article that was produced in response to quotes made by the former Newcastle and Northern Ireland ace Keith Gillespie on to his thoughts that “if you’re born in Northern Ireland you should not have the option of playing for the Republic”.
Now, I don’t want to spend the rest of this article going through the entire McClean saga; that is something I have already documented in another blog on the matter, which can be viewed using the links below.
What I would prefer to do is provide an insight into the average Northern Ireland supporter’s mindset on the eligibility issue as a whole, something that potentially could affect the existence of the football association that has been represented in the past by world legends such as Best, Blanchflower, Gregg, Jennings and Whiteside.
I guess from the outset, I would like to make it clear that in no way am I attempting to make out that I speak for every Northern Ireland fan out there, or indeed they share the same views as me.
These are simply my own thoughts based upon personal beliefs and my experience of watching Northern Ireland both home and abroad.
The “Defectors” Issue
A quick glance through articles online regarding the eligibility issue throws up names such as Daniel Cairns, Darron Gibson, Eunan O’Kane, Mark Wilson and of course McClean.
Examining the list, one would not be surprised if in future years we hear the question in a pub quiz, “What do they all have in common?”
While the obvious answer may be that they all switched allegiances between NI & the ROI, a more detailed response might be that in addition to the above, none of them was born, or has parents of grandparents born, in the Republic of Ireland.
This may lead to the question, how do they qualify for the Republic?
Well, surprisingly enough it is not the Good Friday Agreement that grants them this “opportunity’”, as a lot of the media continually try to make out. In fact, this option has been available to those born in Northern Ireland since the 1950s, when the Republic changed its Nationality and Citizenship Act to afford anyone Irish nationality from birth on an island-wide basis.
What this effectively did was enable the Republic of Ireland to select any player born on the Island of Ireland, whether they are from Northern Ireland or the Republic itself.
NB: I cannot guarantee this, but apparently the rumours that you only have to drink a pint of Guinness to become an Irish National are untrue. Although Tony “I didn’t qualify for Ireland. I was a fraud. A fake Irishman” Cascarino may be able to confirm! (I say in jest!)
With this in mind, the obvious question would be as to why this issue only appears to have arisen now; a fair question indeed!
To understand one possible reason, one has to delve into the history of the Irish Football Association (IFA), one of the oldest in the world and formerly the governing body for football across the entire island of Ireland, and that of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI).
According to the FAI’s own official website, the story goes that there were tensions between Northern and Southern Ireland clubs in the early 1900s. After the 1916 Rising and the rise of Nationalism, the “southern affiliates, such as the Leinster FA, began to take an aggressive approach in their dealings with the IFA”, which culminated with them breaking away (hence the nickname the “breakaways”) to form the current Football Association of Ireland.
Indeed, the FAI’s recollection of events around that time were that …
“The matter reached crisis-point when later that year, the IFA reneged on a promise to play the IFA Cup final replay between Shelbourne and Glenavon in Dublin and scheduled the match for Belfast. Shelbourne refused to comply and forfeited the cup. A meeting of southern associations and clubs was arranged and on June 1 1921, the Football Association of the Irish Free State (FAIFS) was formed in Molesworth Hall in Dublin.”
Further examination of the FAI’s website provided some interesting reading, with their “History” Section, which they suspiciously changed around the time of CAS 2010/A/2071 IFA v/ FAI, Kearns & FIFA hearing, stating …
“At the time, both the FAIFS and IFA selected players from all over Ireland meaning that many footballers won caps for both Associations. It wasn’t until 1950 that FIFA intervened.”
“1950 was also the year that the problem of players playing for both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was finally solved, with FIFA directing both Associations to only pick players from within their own boundaries.”
The IFA has long argued that the above statements related to a “gentleman’s agreement” that was in operation between the two Associations, which they presented to the CAS.
Unsurprisingly, however, the FAI denied any such agreement was in place, with their defence stating that …
“In the beginning of the 1950s, the two associations accepted that they could no longer regard all players on the island as being under their jurisdiction and agreed that the IFA was the governing body of football in Northern Ireland and the FAI in the Republic of Ireland. In any event, there was no discussion about the status of Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland and FAI has never accepted that Irish citizens could not be selected for its representative teams, whether they were living in Northern Ireland or elsewhere.”
Without any official documentation to prove that an agreement actually existed and the FAI’s refusal to admit such, the CAS had little choice but to rule against the IFA and therefore give a seal of approval for the floodgates to be opened.
Regardless of the decision, however, given the statement made by the FAI on their website and the fact that they did not pick players from the IFA’s jurisdiction until recent times (Alan Kernaghan being one of the first in the ‘90s), it does not seem inconceivable that there was an understanding in place that stopped such selections occurring.
What is also worth noting from the CAS case is that FIFA noted that “the [IFA] is exposed to a one-way situation, where players can choose to play for your association teams but the vice versa is not possible. This circumstance is rather unique and the FIFA Statutes and regulations do not provide for a solution”.
Recognising the unfair disadvantage to the IFA, the FIFA legal committee went as far as inviting the FAI to voluntarily “confine itself to selecting for its association teams Northern Irish players who meet one of the following requirements: a) the player was born in the Republic of Ireland, b) his biological mother or father was born in the Republic of Ireland, c) his grandmother or grandfather was born in the Republic of Ireland, or d) he has lived continuously, for at least two years, in the Republic of Ireland”.
Needless to say the FAI rejected the invitation, leaving us in the current situation.
From a Northern Ireland supporter’s position, this is of extreme concern as it puts the very existence of the IFA at risk; even more so than the fears many have regarding the threat posed to the footballing independence of the four Home Nations by Team GB.
Indeed, with the FAI already in a position to field an All Ireland Team, what is to stop FIFA instructing the FAI and IFA to compete jointly under the banner of Ireland?
To some, this alone may be enough to understand why there is increasing disdain among Northern Ireland supporters towards the FAI. However, if you add in the fact that the latter are now actively targeting members of the IFA youth squads who are showing potential, players in whom they had never previously shown any interest, then a true understanding of the situation can be gained.
In regards to the latter, I believe Dave Hannigan of the Irish Echo summed it up perfectly when he stated:
“Essentially, the FAI are the magpies of underage football, waiting and watching before prowling.”
On a personal note, living in the country we do, I can understand that some players will not feel any form of affinity with the Northern Ireland football team due to their politics. That, I have no issue with. If they declare from the start that they want to represent the FAI, then I wish them all the best.
What I do object to are those who are content to represent the IFA throughout their youth, but then when the time comes to make the step up to the senior squad and tie themselves in, they suddenly develop issues with the anthem sung, the flag flown, and the stadium internationals are played in, while also noting that they have “always wanted to play for the Republic of Ireland” and that this was “their dream”.
To put this in the context of Sunderland AFC, imagine the scenario whereby your club was bringing a lot of youth players through who were born in the local area. These players were happy to play for the team right up until they were about to make the senior squad and then suddenly Newcastle FC came calling.
After the move, the players were then coming out and saying they never wanted to play for Sunderland and their dream was always to play for Newcastle.
Not only that, they didn’t like the flags of your club, made unfounded allegations about the songs that were sung by your fans and stated that the Stadium of Light was a cold house for players with such inclinations.
If any football fan replaced Sunderland AFC in the above with their club/country’s name and Newcastle FC with their nearest rival, I doubt any of them could say honestly that they did not feel sympathy with the position that we in Northern Ireland find ourselves in.
Our Wee Country – a cold house for Catholics?
I can foresee that my words on the subject of eligibility will provoke comments along the lines of Windsor Park being a cold house for Catholics due to the National Anthem being sung and the Union Jack being flown.
Indeed James McClean attempted to justify his decision to switch allegiances, with quotes such as …
“You don’t really feel at home. I think any Catholic would be lying if they said they did feel at home, seeing all those flags and hearing the songs and chants.”
Reading comments like this, I can see how many looking in from the outside could feel some empathy with McClean and players like him from a Nationalist background born in Northern Ireland.
Unfortunately for us Northern Ireland supporters, the media are only too happy to report headline grabbing comments like the above, yet do little to actually investigate whether there is any truth in them.
If they did, then they might have requested McClean explained his comments given the reception the likes of Pat McCourt, Niall McGinn and recent captain Sammy Clinghan get each time they step out onto the Windsor Park pitch in their Northern Ireland shirts.
They may have engaged with Chris Baird who is known to have talked about the good natured “banter” that existed between Northern Ireland players from different community backgrounds and who “genuinely thinks the Northern Ireland fans are something very special”. Or perhaps even a word with his brother who previously stated: “Thanks very much for all the kind words and support for Chris and all the family, it is very much appreciated and just confirms that NI fans are a class act.”
Further to that, they could even have got the views of the likes of current Celtic manager Neil Lennon who previously stated that “fans like Stewart have made the atmosphere at Northern Ireland football games in recent years the envy of fans across not only Europe but World Football’ or Sinn Fein MLA Caral Ni Chulin, who stated that she recognised “the very real efforts that have been made by the IFA to tackle sectarianism at their matches”.
Despite the comments above, I can still take on board that some parts of our community cannot relate to the Union Jack or God Save The Queen. That is only too evident when our teams line up at the beginning of a game and a number of players keep their heads bowed down until the formalities are completed.
In regards to this, I don’t mind putting it on record that it would be my preference if we had our own sporting anthem, similar to that of Scotland and Wales, and a flag to match.
First and foremost I look at myself as being Northern Irish, so why not have something that formally represents our country alone?
Nevertheless, I do not feel that the current flag or anthem should be used as something to try and throw scorn on the IFA or their supporters about.
If Ulster Protestant rugby players and fans can stand in Dublin under the Irish Tricolour, while the Soldier’s Song is blasted out, then why can the same not be done by Ulster Catholics, for the Union Jack and GSTQ?
Yes, we need change in order to break down any perceived barriers, but for that to happen we need players and supporters alike to demonstrate that it is acceptable to respect each others traditions.
Crusades to try and discredit the IFA and its supporters, like the one McClean and certain elements of our media (the Belfast Telegraph’s Amanda Poole springs to mind) appears to be on, will certainly not help to achieve this.
Similarly, by continuing to act like “magpies”, prowling our youth teams looking to take our most glittering prospects, the FAI will only cause further division within our fragile society and cause relations between our supporters to fall to an all time low.
Moving forward, we as fans must continue to work hard to ensure that the remarkable transformation we have been part of in the last ten years remains on track.
We need to ensure that the bad old days, when sectarian songs were once the norm in the stands, never return.
To continue to promote Football For All and explore avenues to break down perceived barriers must remain high on our objectives.
This of course will not be easy and for that we need the help of those in the media, whether that be from the mainstream papers to those who write blogs.
Continuing to refer back to incidents in our past, while ignoring were we are currently, will do little, but stir up old prejudices. Quoting 16-year-old kids, who most likely haven’t set foot in a Northern Ireland match, on comments made on social media outlets, needs to be done only after the bigger picture has been examined.
And as for the FAI, well let’s just hope that they do their bit for community relations and work with the IFA to come up with some form of agreement. An example to this might be that the FAI agrees not to select any player that has represented the IFA above U18 level.
Surely the benefits a small step like this would achieve far outweigh any gains the FAI would make by continuing in their guise of the “magpies of underage football”?
* Additional thoughts on NI Football, including James McClean can be found at http://coachers.blogspot.co.uk
** Andrew Rodgers on Andrew Rodgers: my love for football can be partly attributed to childhood memories of my beloved Northern Ireland competing in the 1986 World Cup and the inspirational Liverpool teams of the 80s. Despite hanging his boots up last season, his keen interest in the game has been maintained through his roles of club and league secretary, whilst also following NI at home and, as life permits, abroad.