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Dublin: 17 °C Monday 30 May, 2016

Could we see more Jack Grealish-type sagas for Ireland in 2016?

The granny rule debate has been revisited again over the past 12 months.

Jack Grealish declared for England ahead of Ireland after a protracted saga earlier this year.
Jack Grealish declared for England ahead of Ireland after a protracted saga earlier this year.

THERE IS NO doubt that the granny rule was and continues to be vital for the Irish team.

One need only look back at the 2-0 Aviva Stadium win over Bosnia that sealed Ireland’s Euro 2016 qualification to recognise its importance – of the non-Irish born players who featured for the Boys in Green that day, Jon Walters scored a brace, James McCarthy anchored the midfield with distinction, and both Richard Keogh and Ciaran Clark were consistently solid at the back.

In previous years, the rule has also benefitted the Irish team on a regular basis. John Aldridge, Ray Houghton, Tony Cascarino, Andy Townsend and others played a big part in the team’s success during the Jack Charlton era.

During Mick McCarthy’s time as manager and thereafter, Matt Holland, Kevin Kilbane and Gary Breen among others were fantastic servants to their country and so happened to be born in Britain.

Nevertheless, while Ireland are far from the only team to have utilised the rule to their advantage, at the height of the team’s success under Charlton, some English journalists — clearly unimpressed their side had failed to make the 1994 World Cup whereas Ireland had reached the USA tournament with a number of British-born players in their team — began to question the legitimacy of the granny rule.

And indeed, one of the Ireland’s best-ever results during that aforementioned World Cup, the 1-0 win over Italy, was achieved with just four Irish-born players in the starting XI — Packie Bonner, Denis Irwin, Steve Staunton and Roy Keane.

Yet despite it being most closely linked with Jack Charlton’s teams, the granny rule has in fact been utilised by Ireland since 1965, when Man United’s Shay Brennan became the first second-generation player to feature in an Irish team. Irish managers John Giles and Eoin Hand regularly capitalised on the granny rule thereafter, with Mark Lawrenson, Chris Hughton and Michael Robinson among the notable names to wear the green jersey prior to Charlton’s heyday.

Furthermore, in 2015, the old debate about the granny rule was resurrected, years after it had previously been debated ad nauseam, with Jack Charlton telling journalists at the time:

You want me to compete with the best in the World, I’ve got to have the f*****g best in the world. And it’s not here in Ireland that I can find it, I’ve got to go to England to find it, or Scotland to find the quality that will make you a team that will compete with the best in the world. Now, if you don’t want to do that, tell me, and I’ll f*****g concentrate on the League of Ireland and we’ll win nothing. But give me the freedom to produce results and I’ll produce results.”*

There are two main reasons why the argument has been revisited to an extent in recent times: 1. Ireland faced Scotland in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, with potentially two Scottish-born players (James McCarthy and Aiden McGeady) in the Ireland team. 2. The saga involving promising Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish and his long-awaited decision on whether he would declare for Ireland or England.

Soccer - International Friendly - Republic of Ireland v England - Aviva Stadium Aiden McGeady has received criticism for choosing Ireland over Scotland. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Over the past 12 months, some high-profile people have suggested the granny rule should be scrapped. On the Grealish saga, the Daily Mail journalist Martin Samuel wrote: “While Ireland haven’t broken any rules, they are certainly making the most of them. Their last Under 21 squad — which did not include Grealish — was made up of 21 players, 11 of whom were not born in Ireland. That cannot be right. It is not fair on those within Ireland’s club youth system. It is time for change.”

Meanwhile, former Scotland boss Craig Brown partially shared Samuel’s sentiments, arguing:

I personally think the rule should be that you are either born in Scotland, or your parents are, not your grandparents. The other thing I think too, the staff should all be on the same criteria. That’s my humble opinion.”

Yet what the granny rule detractors overlook is that dual nationality is far from a black-and-white issue. Despite being born in England, Kevin Kilbane, for instance, considered himself Irish and consequently thought the decision to represent the Boys in Green to be a no-brainer.

“I was called up for England at youth level and I turned it down as I didn’t want to play for them,” he said in an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live earlier this year.

“I’d rather have one cap for Ireland than 100 caps for England.”

Similarly, Alan McLoughlin was another English-born footballer who felt deeply Irish.

My parents are both Irish,” he told The42 last year. “I could just as easily have moved to England when I was younger and picked up an English accent. I was proud to play for Ireland and how dare anyone suggest I wasn’t as proud and that I should have been born in Ireland.”

Of course, not every English-born player who ultimately represents Ireland dreamed of doing so from an early age, but so long as the player in question fully commits himself to the green jersey, it seems churlish to begrudge him the chance of doing so.

Yet there is another ostensible issue that has become apparent in more recent times. Prior to 2003, representing a country at underage level meant the footballer in question had to stick with them for the rest of his career.

However, the rules were relaxed to allow Tim Cahill to play for Australia at senior level, when he had turned out for Western Samoa as a 14-year-old at junior level. It’s easy to sympathise with Cahill in the case in question — being essentially punished for a decision made at 14 seems unduly harsh.

But now, it seems, these post-Cahill rules can be exploited to farcical levels. That’s not to say Grealish and others didn’t represent Ireland at underage level for the right reasons, only to belatedly think twice about doing so, but it feels hard not to suspect that there is an element of cynicism to the choice in some cases.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - West Ham United v Newcastle United - Upton Park West Ham United's Mark Noble has hinted he'd be interested in representing Ireland in the past. Source: Steven_Paston

A growing number of young players in recent times, including Daniel Crowley, Patrick Bamford and Marcus Agyei-Tabi, have opted to play for Ireland at youth level, only to subsequently switch their allegiance to England. 28-year-old West Ham midfielder, Mark Noble, who has long been overlooked for an England call-up, has also publicly toyed with the idea of belatedly declaring for Ireland.

The Secret Footballer’s latest book, Access All Areas, recounts an interesting story of a promising English-born footballer who has suddenly been offered the chance to play for the Ireland U21s. The player’s father thinks he should grasp the opportunity, as he believes that representing the Boys in Green at youth level will “put his son on the map”.

The Secret Footballer, who has retired and is representing the player in question, writes:

He shouldn’t play for Ireland. He is too good. I explain this to the kid and the dad, and tell them that my plan is to use Ireland to flush out England, for whom the boy really wants to play. I think that’s fair to Ireland. To England. And to the kid. Let him make his choice when he sees what choices there are.

“I explain that my friend, an old coach of mine, heads up talent for England, and it will only take one phone call. I haven’t made that call yet because the kid really needs to have played more games for his team rather than the 10 or so he has under his belt. However, our hand has now been forced, so I’ll make the call. In the meantime, I’ll tell Ireland, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ ‘But,’ says the dad, ‘Ireland are on the table today.’”

The Secret Footballer also has a contact at Nike, who explains to him that the player in question will only be of use to the company if he opts to represent England. He explains the situation in stark terms: “If he plays once for England he’ll make a million quid from us as a minimum; if he plays a hundred times for Ireland, we’re not interested, I’m afraid.”

The situation echoes the words of Jonathan Barnett, the agent of both Grealish and Gareth Bale. Of the latter’s decision to play for Wales, he recently explained:

When we first got together when he was 15, we talked about whether he was going to play for England or Wales. I nearly got my head bitten off by his dad, who is fanatically Welsh, and his mum.

“He could have qualified through his grandmother and I tell you that it has cost him millions and millions of pounds. You can imagine what it would have been like if he were playing for England next summer in the Euros… but he does love playing for Wales.”

The unfortunate reality, therefore, is that in the modern game, even international football is not immune from greed and financial considerations.

It seems distinctly possible that, in the coming years, English-born players will be increasingly discouraged from representing Ireland owing to the commercial realities of the situation, among other factors. In addition, the wheel coming full circle is far from unthinkable — in future years, the FAI may have to fight hard to dissuade promising Irish-born youngsters, who have spent some time in English academies, from ultimately declaring for the Three Lions. After all, not everyone is as ‘fanatical’ about their nationality as Gareth Bale’s father.

Earlier this week, in an interview with the Irish Independent, Ireland U21 boss Noel King said he would not be “pursuing” promising Arsenal youngster Daniel Crowley, who is eligible for both Ireland and England.

Yet unfortunately for King and those who consider engaging with such behaviour to be undignified, back-and-forth negotiations, protracted sagas of uncertainty and sudden player u-turns are increasingly becoming commonplace in international football.

*h/t Soccer Ireland

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